So you want to be a social entrepreneur?

Are you passionate about a social problem and want to devote your working hours to solving it? As you’re probably already aware, it takes a bit more than a strong work ethic and a healthy dose of idealism to drive a successful social enterprise — but if your idea’s got the potential to change lives, a little planning will go a long way. 

Have a solid idea — and do your due diligence 

It sounds obvious, but doing some market research is essential in social entrepreneurship. It’s useful to understand what others are doing in similar spaces to your own not only when you’re viewing them as competitors, but also when they’re your potential collaborators: perhaps one of the tools that you need and thought you’d have to build is already in existence. Rather than replicating work that’s already being done, a useful social enterprise often builds on the work of others and provides integral links between other entities. Remember that research is particularly important if your idea plans to solve a problem in a community that isn’t your own: nobody wants a white saviour figure swooping in to erase or repeat work that’s already underway. 

Study further 

Social entrepreneurship has gained enough popularity — and enough potential to bring about environmental, social and economic change — to see it taught at institutions from London Business School’s Social Impact Hub to MIT’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Bootcamp. 

In South Africa, the Gordon Institute of Business Science offers a social entrepreneurship programme at their GIBS Entrepreneurship Development Academy. The programme aims to equip its students with technical, creative, strategic and management skills, as well as linking them to the networks they’ll need to address social and economic challenges while also running a profitable organisation. UCT Graduate School of Business’s Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship is dedicated to advancing social innovation and entrepreneurship. The Social Enterprise Academy offers another useful option with internationally recognised qualifications, teaching students the leadership and enterprise skills needed to create an impact as well as establishing financial sustainability.

Want to take a hands-on approach? As the popularity of accelerators and incubators continues to grow, some focus specifically on social entrepreneurship. Locally, Red Bull Amaphiko Academy serves as a “launchpad for grassroots social entrepreneurs who are making a positive difference in their community”; ygap runs a series of short, live-in accelerators for early-stage social impact ventures and Oribi Village runs an incubator and collaborative co-working space for social entrepreneurs with six months to devote to growing their venture.

Stack up your skill set 

Social entrepreneurship often places its founders at interesting intersections between industries. First of all, accept and admit that you don’t know everything, and that that’s okay. Next, set out to gain useful knowledge about the industries in which you’ll operate, the people or entities that you’re trying to help, and the nature of the problem you wish to solve. Then look into free courses that you could take to become better-equipped to perform day-to-day tasks that are part of the fabric of your business, whether that means learning a new language, acquiring some basic accounting skills or exploring IT. 

Remember: you’re not owed anything

A social enterprise is a business with conscience at its core, but keep in mind that just because you’re working for a good cause, no one is under a moral obligation to support you. Depending on your cause, cute kittens or adorable kids may certainly form a legitimate part of your marketing strategy, but you’re going to have to differentiate yourself — just like any other enterprise. 

Be realistic about your resources

Whether it’s money, time, space or stuff, your entrepreneurial venture is likely to incur costs — and as in the point above, you can only expect the goodwill of others to take you so far. Consider your financial options and whether you’ll need to look into funding or a business loan, or whether you can rely on your own resources until you start turning a profit. 

Learn from others’ mistakes 

If you can learn from the experience of others, do that — or you’ll have to learn from your own, later, which tends to be more expensive and frustrating. For some, these lessons are best learned from a mentor, while for others a network in the social entrepreneurship space will provide the support that’s needed to thrive in what’s often an emotionally draining space.

Pick a partner 

Business partners have their value in any industry: having someone to bounce ideas off of is valuable, skills and resources can be pooled between two (or more!) partners, and there’s someone with whom to celebrate successes. In social entrepreneurship, this relationship becomes even more valuable: business partners are able to share the emotional load of running a business that’s concerned with righting society’s wrongs. In most cases, social innovation involves a good deal of human interaction, from community involvement to pitching to investors, so someone with big ideas who’s not necessarily a “people person” might need to find a partner with a winning personality and a gift for getting along with everyone. 

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