feeling good about social entrepreneurship

The world of social entrepreneurship as represented on some websites always seemed to me something that tended toward feel-good sentiments. Nothing wrong with that, really. Of course I understand that doing good makes one feel good.

But in some cases, it seemed to me a bit shallow, a bit put on — as if the social in social entrepreneurship meant that what you did was always fun and easy, and had to be accompanied by much fanfare.

The above must have sounded cynical, I know. But I think I have had enough exposure to social entrepreneurs and their work — some firsthand, and some through publications like the Enterprise Development Technical Kit: Social Enterprise at Work, which featured case studies of social enterprises, published by thePhilippines-Australia Community Assistance Program (PACAP) (and incidentally, edited and designed by our group, East Axis Creative) — to know what it can be like, especially in a country such as mine. Social entrepreneurs have an ideal for their raison d’etre and hold to it with all they are and have. And I’m talking about social entrepreneurs in the rural areas, those who probably aren’t even aware of the term “social entrepreneur.”

If there’s anything I’ve picked up from these books and from these encounters, it’s that going into social entrepreneurship is no walk in the park. “Fun” and “easy” aren’t always the words social entrepreneurs would use to describe what they do, and not only do they do it without fanfare, but at times, they do it without much support.

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Workshop participant Minoli presents her idea during an exercise while Tommy Hutchinson (in background) listens.

Workshop participant Minoli presents her idea during an exercise while Tommy Hutchinson (in background) listens.

Maybe I was more curious than anything else when I attended the two-day British Council-sponsored workshop, “How to Start a Social Enterprise,” held September 30th and October 1st.

I didn’t really know what to expect. I think I wanted to see how ideas and good intentions could be translated to plans and actions — and, in addition, to see if a social enterprise was the way to go for our organization.

I was, to be frank, wary of feeling good. Anything remotely close to motherhood statements about saving the world, and I’d be out the door.

But this was not that kind of workshop. Tommy Hutchinson of i-genius and Vince Rapisura of Social Enterprise Development Partnerships (SEDPI) had so much to share that the two days just flew by. No motherhood statements, no feel-good sentiments. It was solid, practical information from the beginning.

My take-away from the workshop was a deeper understanding of what it took to be a social entrepreneur and an appreciation of the realities a would-be social entrepreneur would face. The exercises and the honest assessment of our ideas were useful.

Particularly valuable was the exchange of energy between the facilitators and the participants. I felt I was in the company of people whose passions and ideals may have differed but who had one thing in common: they cared about something enough to want to do something.

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Caring about something might very well be what makes a social entrepreneur, as Tommy Hutchinson of i-genius said during the workshop.

In an interview after the workshop, he talked a little bit more about this. Ideas, after all, are not enough. A social entrepreneur, Tommy said, “can spot an opportunity, make it happen, and continue to develop.”

This opportunity doesn’t always come in fair weather. In fact, even recent history has shown that many social enterprises are born from dire need. “Great things usually happen in periods of adversity,” he said. “The best innovations, the best ideas often come in places where there’s conflict or where there is poverty.”

This might explain why commitment is often the key and perhaps the most important quality of a social entrepreneur, as Tommy said. “Social entrepreneurs are not easily put off. It is not easy to set up a business. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it. So it’s not easy. And they shouldn’t pretend it’s easy.”

But with 5 social enterprises under his belt, Tommy can certainly make it look easy.

To workshop participants, he had this to say: “I would hope that they would take something that they have learned and apply it. I would hope that they’d be inspired to really go for it and to not let setbacks that occur put them off. So I would hope that they would come out being inspired, driven, and a little bit more knowledgeable. If I’m lucky,” he jokes.

On a more serious note, Tommy said, “I would also particularly hope — in fact, I think this I would expect — for them to make friendships and partnerships with other people who attend our events. That really is the easiest thing you can do. Sit next to somebody, introduce each other and say, ‘How could we work together?’ I would expect them to do that.”

Update (8 November): My story on social entrepreneurship is out in today’s Manila Bulletin, Business Agenda section. Read the online version here.

A longer story on social entrepreneurship in the Philippines will follow soon, hopefully…

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