Written by Louise Thomson
Empreendedorismo social is a phrase I have to use several times a day here in Rio. One month in and I can almost pronounce it without wincing. It’s the most direct translation I’ve found for ‘social entrepreneurship’ but even once I’ve managed to get my mouth round it (usually the third attempt) I’m still left with a blank face looking back at me. Getting it out was only half the battle; if it’s challenging to explain clearly what is still an emerging and nuanced concept in English, it’s even harder in Portuguese.
Back in London, after I’d accepted a place on the _SocialStarters Rio Immersion programme, I had a few months to practice my response to the inevitable question: “what is social enterprise?” My stock answer was a compilation of nice sound bites I’d found online or picked up from the talks and events I started going to.
Though my tone became more confident as the weeks passed, I was still faking it. I’d got my head around the theories behind social enterprise and entrepreneurship, but I couldn’t quite fathom how it worked in practice. Part of me thought it sounded almost too good to be true. Impressive, energetic young people delivering talks in cool venues, reconceptualising social problems as exciting opportunities. As convincing as a lot of these speakers were, I knew I was also desperate to believe them; it made it a lot easier to justify my dropping everything to try and join their gang.
I started writing a blog to capture my own thoughts and experiences of social enterprise precisely because it can be so difficult to explain (and because maybe one day more than four people will start reading it). But so far the feedback from my early adopters (my parents, my boyfriend and whoever happens to be in the flat at the time) keeps coming back to one thing:
“You keep talking about what social enterprise isn’t. We still don’t really understand what it is. Actually, what are you even doing out there?”
It’s a fair point. It’s sometimes easier to describe what social enterprise isnot (“it’s not charity”, “it’s not CSR”) but this can be counter-productive and when you get bogged down in the terminology you’re usually missing the point. It’s true that I’ve also been eager to point out what the _SocialStarters programme isn’t: it’s not a belated gap year, it’s not irresponsible volontourism, it’s not an excuse to “party in the favelas” (as some friendly folk have indeed suggested verbatim).
On paper, this is what _SocialStarters does: a group of consultants with different backgrounds, ages and skill sets come together from all over the world for six weeks. Each consultant is paired with a local client, who may not necessarily consider themselves a social entrepreneur but who will be driving a project that has a social mission and usually a business element too. After the first week’s bootcamp, the consultants are let loose onto the back streets of Rio armed with post-its and felt tips, raring to find out how startup methodology and design thinking can help their clients take these projects forward.
In practice, it looks like this: a former City banker and the organizer of a monthly black music party go through a projected income statement together to come up with a more financially viable model to increase the profits that can be reinvested into community projects. Two young fashion entrepreneurs and enthusiasts (one from Australia and one from Angola) jointly develop an original strategy for increasing customer feedback for the product — handmade clothes that carry powerful messages about racism in Brazil. And that’s just two out of the 12 client-consultant pairs that are currently working together.
So how does my experience of working with social entrepreneurs over the past month in Rio compare with the marketing pitch I’d put together to convince others and myself that I hadn’t gone completely mad? Here is a list of the top three things about social entrepreneurship and enterprise that, thankfully, have turned out to be true.
1. Social entrepreneurship is about finding innovative solutions to social problems.
Like traditional entrepreneurs, two defining characteristics of social entrepreneurs are resourcefulness and creativity. They work with who they are, what they know and who they know to develop new solutions; the difference is that the problem they are starting with is a social one. For Guilherme, one of our clients, the problem was that children and teenagers in his community couldn’t easily access books — and seemed to have no interest in reading them anyway.
Guilherme wanted to bring the books to the kids in a way that would get their attention, but didn’t have the means to set up a traditional mobile library. So he came up with an idea so novel he needed to create a new word for it: livretaria (a play on livraria, book shop). Guilherme attached a wardrobe to the back of a tricycle to make a ‘book cart’ that could be cycled around the community. The Livretaria Popular Juraci Nascimento can now be found in a different spot in Morro do Zinco each week, loaning books to children for free and forming a centrepiece for community storytelling and theatre events.
The project has been running less than a year and as yet does not generate its own revenue; aside from Guilherme’s seemingly endless reserves of energy, it depends on local volunteers and donated books. But this could change following a crowdfunding campaign coordinated by one of the _SocialStarters consultants which would allow Guilherme to expand and develop his project further.
2. Social enterprises go further than demonstrating that social mission and profit motive can co-exist; they actively seek and harness profit to safeguard the sustainability of their social impact.
Do good for yourself or do good for others — this is what I always thought it boiled down to, and the prospect of having to choose was a big factor in my growing career angst. And the world as it is makes it difficult to believe that there’s a middle ground. A lot of people are (rightly so, in some cases) suspicious of introducing market forces into the social sector, just as many think that expecting businesses to prioritize social or environmental wellbeing over shareholders’ dividends is naïve.
Social enterprises seek to bridge this gap through creating financially sustainable models that can deliver lasting social change. In most cases, revenue and profit will be fundamental to achieving this.
If I told you that I’m working with a collective of young art students who want to start a free school for working-class teenagers to nurture creativity and citizenship, what are the first images that come into your head? St Petersburg 1917? Paris 1968? In Rio 2015, income statement spreadsheets and business model canvasses are the chosen weapons for these revolutionaries, and they’re more likely to be found devouring books on marketing than Marx.
Spend five minutes talking to my client João and you’ll be left in no doubt as to his unrelenting passion and commitment to empowering young people through art and education. João is himself a student of Oi! Kabum, a creative media school which offers training to young people from low-income communities. He was 18 when he co-founded the Coletivo Soldado Anônimo to launch arts projects around pressing social issues in Rio’scomunidades.
João and his team have realised that to take their projects to the next level and have a lasting social impact they need to move away from the grants that have supported them in the past and generate their own revenue streams. So we’re experimenting with different business models that will allow João and his team to market the idea of the school to paying customers. The fact that these customers will form a separate group from the school’s target beneficiaries makes our task even more challenging — and interesting. Excel has never felt more radical.
3.Pragmatism and idealism don’t have to be mutually exclusive — and both are crucial to succeeding as a social entrepreneur.
In some circles in London ‘idealism’ is almost a dirty word. When I realized that, I also realized that I needed to spend less time hanging out in those circles. To me it means living by your values and striving for a better future. Likewise, I’ve never liked the inference that being ‘pragmatic’ means you don’t stand by what you believe in. Being pragmatic, I think, is more to do with how able you are to get results.
Social entrepreneurs want to change the world but they are able to reframe that mission so that world has a targetable scope and change has a measurable impact. Idealism allows them to identify the problem and motivates them to take it on; pragmatism gives them a better chance of finding an effective solution. What better way to illustrate this than with chocolate brownies.
Brownie do Luiz is a company in Rio which makes and sells brownies. It was started by the then fifteen-year-old Luiz in his parents’ kitchen ten years ago, and now has a factory and two shops in central Rio as well as 120 vendors across Brazil. Delicious as the brownies themselves are, it’s the company’s attitude and message that have defined its success.
Luiz and his team set out to prove that there is a different and better way of doing business: one that promotes cooperation, integration and balance in our economy and society. If this sounds like greenwashing then the company’s actions speak for themselves. They have adopted a horizontal decision-making structure, one where members of factory floor and management team have an equal voice. They give out a lot of free brownies (they don’t know how many, no one’s counting). The full brownie recipe is displayed on their website — to customers and competitors alike — and still people are buying brownies in droves.
Conventional business logic says that with inefficient and uncompetitive practices like these Luiz should never have made it out of the kitchen, but the company keeps going from strength to strength as its customer and fan base grows. Luiz and his team are clear about one thing: they’re only making brownies. It could have been anything, Luiz just happened to be good at making brownies. Not only is this a prime example of effectual reasoning, another common trait in successful entrepreneurs, but it goes to show how much easier it is to go about turning ideals into reality when you focus on impact.
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