It Is Time To Celebrate Our True Social Heroes

It is time we celebrate the first movers, the social entrepreneurs, who set out on the journey to make a difference.

learn more about Henrik Baerentsen

By Henrik Baerentsen


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Social entrepreneurship is not a new phenomenon, but awareness around its role in driving positive social change is very limited in countries belonging to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Social entrepreneurs have long taken a back seat, because "positive change in the community" is often perceived to be the remit of "rich philanthropists," or, indeed, government.

Generally speaking, social entrepreneurs are focused on making an impact and improving society. They are bursting with hope and energy, embarking on a tough journey– combining entrepreneurship and positive social impact. Things are changing at remarkable speed. Governments in the region are growing increasingly aware of the role that social entrepreneurs play in driving economic growth. They're investing in not only building their skills, but also accelerating a culture of social impact.

Take The Authority for Social Contribution, Ma'an, the arm of the Department of Community Development, Abu Dhabi, which has set up their first fully-fledged social impact incubator in the GCC. As H.E. Salama Al Ameemi, Director General of Ma'an, so eloquently put it: "It is time we celebrate the impact makers, the social entrepreneurs, who have set out on this journey. At Ma'an, we are working hard to create awareness about social entrepreneurship, and establish an ecosystem that will enable and support our social entrepreneurs."

The business landscape is changing too, Fortune 500 companies are moving away from a singular, profit-driven focus. They're growing a conscience. Partly compelled by customer demands, but also amplified by employees looking for purpose, and for companies delivering social impact alongside profit. As millennials increasingly focus on buying ethically responsible products- that is culturally, environmentally, and socially responsible, and reflected in the collective voice of young people– we know that the future of social entrepreneurship is secure. Social entrepreneurs inhabit the nexus of these two waves: corporate social responsibility (CSR) and purpose.

Related: Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2019: Medea Nocentini, CEO, C3

Together, these two waves indicate the dawn of a new era that has the potential to spark great change. Firstly, we need to understand and define what social entrepreneurship is– and how it differs from the regular dialogue on entrepreneurship, and "youth entrepreneurship." I would define social entrepreneurship as when startups or established businesses use innovative solutions to address cultural, environmental, and social issues, making use of a purpose- and impact-driven approach, built on a sustainable business model. However, this concept should not be limited to young startup firms. It is a business model that can be rolled out across organizations of all sizes, and align with their corporate purpose. Social entrepreneurs, despite the nobility of their cause, have to face the same challenges all entrepreneurs face. But they also have a more arduous end result– the need to ensure a positive impact on the community, whilst maintaining profitability.

Profit, after all, is not a bad word. To build and sustain growth, and contribute to the community, businesses need to be viable. They need to have the bandwidth to attract funds, and the wherewithal to convert the funding into viable business opportunities. The endgame really is based on how these profits are utilizedand that is where social enterprises make real difference. Social entrepreneurs fill the gap between corporate CSR and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or non-profit organizations (NPOs). Corporate CSR programs can be seen as vanity projects, where they take a chunk of their profit, and use it for good. NGO/NPOs are traditionally supported by donations, and as such, they are not driven by capital or productivity. Both fill a need, yes; however, in order to exact real change, we need a greater purpose.

By using innovation to trigger and change the status quo, social entrepreneurs are not reliant on immediate profit, nor are they held back by the expectations that comes with donations. They focus on sustainability, while pursuing purpose and impact, and focus on social value, over personal and shareholder value. There are already profoundly successful social impact causes in play. Take TOMS for example, a for-profit company that thrives on a unique model of "one for one," whereby they promise to deliver a pair of free shoes to a child in need, for every sale of their retail product. What I love about social entrepreneurship is that it doesn't wait for an entrepreneur to get rich, and then turn philanthropic; it starts with the basic premise that the business is for the collective good. If we shift the focus onto long-term social return on investment, we will achieve long-lasting and sustainable impact. By recognizing and enabling social entrepreneurs, we can make a real impact for people and topics that have traditionally been sidelined.

Related: Entrepreneur Middle East's Achieving Women 2019: Dr. Iman Bibars, Regional Director, Ashoka Arab World

With initiatives under Ghadan 21 (which translates into Tomorrow 21, an AED50 billion investment project featuring 50 programs focused on four areas- business and investment, society, knowledge and innovation, and lifestyle), focusing on building this third vital sector of social entrepreneurs, who serve as a vital link between governments and communities, this is where we see tremendous promise. Social entrepreneurship in the Middle East is still in its infancy, and as such, we are still experiencing bumps along the way. To flourish, tangible social entrepreneurship requires three things: a legal and regulatory framework for protection, a solid ecosystem to flourish, and sufficient available funding to grow into social enterprises.

If we address these challenges, we can establish a sustainable and impactful social entrepreneurship sector. In a time where we celebrate social influencers, how about we shift our focus and attention -at least just a little- towards our unsung social heroes, people who don't want the limelight, but instead focus their energies on a social cause? I believe that social entrepreneurs have something special– it goes beyond the passion for business; they are at the vanguard of a new business model that not only makes them happier as individuals (and probably makes them sleep better at night), but also helps make a positive change to the community. So, if you dream of making an impact, consider joining the growing social entrepreneurial movement– it's not just for the mavericks, millennials, and millionaires. It is for every one of us, for every social hero that is dormant in us, waiting in the wings. It is time we celebrate the first movers, the social entrepreneurs, who set out on the journey to make a difference.

Related: Follow The Leader: H.E. Salama Al Ameemi, Director General, Ma'an Authority for Social Contribution

Henrik Baerentsen

Managing Director - MENA, Duval Union Consulting

Henrik Baerentsen is the Managing Director for the MENA region at Duval Union Consulting

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