Sunday, April 24, 2016

Relook at Social Entrepreneurship

I would call a social enterprise a company with a triple bottom line: social, environmental (or ecological) and financial. It needs to serve a social need, and it needs to be both environmentally and financially sustainable.

You see this diagram in many books talking about social entrepreneurship. The definition of a social enterprise today is very vague, and many even argue if there is a need to have such a definition.

It is already not easy to run a "social enterprise" but I do find many people interested in this field. Across the world, social enterprise is the buzzword to get the support from various governments. But when you do look into the various business models, there is so much grey areas where the organization operates.


In Singapore, the NTUC is considered a social enterprise. They run an insurance company, supermarkets and various other commercial enterprises. National Trade Union Congress in Singapore is a politically backed company after the Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) collapsed in 1963 following the government's detention of its leaders during Operation Coldstore and its subsequent official deregistration on 13 November 1963, leaving the NTUC as the sole trade union centre.

As most of the leaders in NTUC are members from the PAP party, NTUC's operations is closely seen as PAP's operations and hence it is much supported by the government to run social enterprises which has lower cost services.

However, I do not really see NTUC Fairprice having lower cost of food. NTUC Foodfare seemed to charge a much higher price for food with some of the similar chain stores found in other foodcourts, And the one in AMK hub especially has similar foods that costs even more than Orchard Road.

With NTUC considered as a social enterprise in Singapore, Singapore can declare themselves to have one of the largest social enterprises in the world.

With such a broad definition of social enterprises, it is hard not to identify yourself or not identify yourself as a social enterprise in Singapore.

Ways you can call your business a social enterprise.

If you hire elderlies or disabled (due to wage subsidy from government), you can consider yourself a social enterprise as you employ the marginalized.

If you hire the marginalized such as ex-offenders, (due to wage subsidy from government), you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you use recycled or sustainable products, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you carry out activities which benefit a certain group of NGOs, like doing some pro-bono work for a VWO, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you donate part of your profits to charity, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you sell sustainable fashion, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you run (paid) courses for the marginalized, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

If you build products that some marginalized people can use, you can consider yourself a social enterprise.

The list goes on...

So eventually, if you register with the Social Enterprise Association (Which seems rather dormant), you can consider yourself a social enterprise.


So why is this good (or bad)?

I feel that generally, when everything is a Social Enterprise, it can hardly demand differentiation. 

I would argue locksmiths, plumbers or electricians are social entrepreneurs as well as they do serve social need. What about Hybrid Taxi Drivers? Ooooh, they are sooo Green, and they sometimes transport the needy.

The Social Enterprises which creates a big social impact may now find it more difficult to differentiate themselves from the "greenwash" or "whiteswash" social enterprises, and people may not really care otherwise.


Are social enterprises even needed then?

I personally feel that commercial enterprises that primarily focus on profits or interested in the needs of the shareholders is simply wrong. The whole capitalism has warped our sense of reality that we praise businesses that are doing something good.

I really want to discourage students who are interested starting businesses today to start social enterprises if all they want to do is to sell things to the poor.

"Bottom of the Pyramid" 

I really hate this concept of looking at "the poor" as a market to sell things to. The poor does not need low cost pop corn, potato chips or soda... They do not need LCD TVs or other non essentials. 

I really cringe when some of the young entrepreneurs decide to raise funds to make products to target "the poor" after reading the book...

There are needs and wants. If you can find a solution to allow the poor access a need, like lower cost healthy food, sustainable energy, clean water, etc. And if you find a financial model and a distribution model which allows them to buy these needs, great! You are doing good while running a business.

This however may seem to be a fairytale. I'm trying to bring low cost solar kits to rural communities and for them to afford, you need a fantastic logistic model which is efficient and low cost, you need to cut out the middle man and connect to the end users directly, you need to have a low profit margin. All of which most people who you may seek finance from will definitely not fund you.

Most "Impact Investors" -- unfortunately -- are still looking for a profit margin. If they provide the risk capital, they want returns (20% ROI)? And this means your retail price has to be 20% more, an amount which the beneficiaries and target audience may not afford.

In my opinion, there is not really a good place for social enterprises as the corporations are already doing CSR, and the charities are trying to make income. With the confusing definition, people may not even tell the difference between companies and social enterprises.

If you want to create real social impact, stop trying to sell things to "the poor" and think of them as a "Market". With more needs available to them, they may not save enough money to acquire assets which they need to get out of poverty. 

If you are running a social enterprise, make sure you can create positive social change, real social impact, instead of just running a business, pretending to do good.

-- Robin Low

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Crab vs Turtles

Crab Mentality
This is an experiment you can do to learn more about crabs.

In many markets, crabs are sold in an open bucket, and there is no need for any covers as the crabs do not escape.
Whenever a crab tries to climb out of the bucket, other crabs will pull it down when it gets close to escaping.
“I can’t have it, neither can you”
Crab mentality can manifest in many forms, and in many communities, they feel powerless and they get joy when they see others fail, and fear of failing prevents these communities from moving forward. There may be many problems that these communities face, but they do not work together to solve the problems.
Also known as Crabs in a bucket, this is the kind of mindset that some communities have to prevent them to moving forward. It is far more common than you think. In Singapore, there is a term called

“Kiasu” which is prevalent in Singaporeans.

“Kiasu” or “Fear of losing” is seen by some people as a positive thing. It makes Singapore a very competitive society, always trying to be the best in things. This mindset permeates through many differ organizations in Singapore. The Singapore government call it a meritocracy society, where the top students in schools are on full government scholarships and groomed to be leaders. And these leaders are paid many times the average salaries of average Singaporeans, and often placed in top positions in the government or government linked companies.
This mindset has worked in building Singapore the way it is, but it also creates a lot of stress as everyone is very competitive. For some Singaporeans, success also means others should fail. This is the definition of crab mentality and it fragments a society and there is low public trust.

Turtle mentality

Where crab mentality is not desirable, turtle mentality is positive (and adorable)
Baby turtles help each other dig out from a pile. The ones in the bottom push the ones on top upwards until everyone comes out. The process takes about an hour and no one was left behind.
I’ve also known many friends who own terrapins as pets and these turtles will find ways to help their friends escape if the cover of their aquarium is not closed property and they can reach it. Through teamwork, these turtles climb on each other and push the one closest to the top and help him escape.
Many communities have very close relationships and support one another. In Japan after the Tsunami, the survivors self-organize their cleanup and shop owners on the street gather every day to decide on which shops to clean up, allowing them to more efficiently clean the debris and mud than each shop owner cleaning their own store.
In Haiti, I’ve worked with Haiti partners and seen people in the village pooling money to send the children in their village to high school in Port-au-Prince. The people in the village also come together to apply scholarships for all the eligible children and pool money to send them to universities.
Working together allows the villagers to accomplish tasks which may be difficult if a family were to do it alone. There are many examples of farmer cooperatives set up in rural villages to pool resources for bulk purchase and negotiate sales.

When working with communities, it is important to find ways to change their mindsets. It is not just having a solution that matters, but how the change can be sustainable. If the community has crab mentality, the people you help may be pulled down again by others in the community and it is important to address the mindsets as well.

-- Robin Low

Thursday, April 7, 2016

How do I deal with all the drama while striving for positive impact?

It is not easy doing good. Creative People who work on innovative solutions when faced with bureaucracy, rejection or simply lack of support can easily burn out and suffer from depression.

I have been working with marginalized and post disaster communities for more than 8 years now, and today, I see more young people working on social projects or starting social enterprises. This is very encouraging, however, I have also seen many others burn out from time to time. Doing good is not as easy as you may think, and I too at times feel down.

I have volunteered for various organizations and been to many major disasters in the past 15 years. The work is inspiring and addictive. When I volunteer at disaster areas, I feel that my work is very meaningful, and I do feel that many benefited from my presence. However, at times, when I see a problem and I am not empowered to solve it due to bureaucracy, I feel disappointed especially if the bureaucracy and inaction actually causes harm.

Bureaucracies of large organizations cause these organizations to be unable to handle changes on the field, and even when I complained, it was largely ignored. I co-founded Relief 2.0 in 2011 and we went to Japan after the Tsunami and carried out the process of “running the last mile of disaster relief” where we provide what is not provided on the field and do the tasks which are not performed.
When the organizations deliver donated clothes but no one use them, Relief 2.0 members engage the kids in the shelters to sort clothes which makes it easier for the survivors to find what they need. Relief 2.0 also engages volunteers to redistribute food among the shelters.

Post disaster, Relief 2.0 works on getting the communities to help one another to rebuild their economy. Relief Business to Business (Relief B2B) is the practice where we interview shopowners of the damaged stores asking 4 simple questions; “What happened during the disaster?”, “What did you lose?”, “How much do you need?”, and “What are you going to use the money for?” We will record this in a video to bring to the next town and gather business owners to come and give interest bearing loans instead of donations to help the affected business restart. This process of getting the communities to support one another has proved useful and we get students in the local universities to carry out what we started.
The motto that we work with is “Never Help; Engage, Enable, Empower and Connect.” We try to get the locals and the community to solve their problems and work with them to come out with sustainable solutions, or connect them to the help they needs to get it done.

Finding working solutions and solving problems is satisfying; however, there are also many frustrations that I face. From time to time, communications will stall and my contacts will simply stop communicating. When you work on projects, the locals in that country will miss the timeline or simple stop working without giving any feedback.

This problem is not just for developing countries, but my experience in Singapore is also very similar. Working with the recipients of the support may be frustrating as they sometimes do not turn up for free trainings, and simply not come to work when you hire them and no reasons are given. In some cases, they are just not professional, but sometimes, there are a lot of other pressing issues that the marginalized communities face which they either assume you know, or they are too ashamed to share.
I’ve once worked with a farmer which I funded to support him for farming, and when I found that all the vegetable seedlings died even when the weather was good, I got frustrated with him for avoiding me, but later found out that he contracted dengue fever and was sick for weeks and too ashamed to contact me for losing everything.

In some cases, the communities you want to create are not as enthusiastic as you. I want to create an entrepreneurship eco-system for kids in Singapore, and I’ve started Dreamity Entrepreneurship bootcamp. Many parents are interested, but studies always come first and everything else is secondary. The kid’s business will be halted for exams and homework, and in most cases, a long pause usually means that the business will be discontinued.

For many social projects, finding funding is very hard. The government may have schemes, but your project has to fit exactly into their scheme before they consider funding, and application takes a long time. Corporates and business may be interested to be sponsors, but many want to know how the project will benefit them.

I’ve worked on several projects where funding and free venue was agreed, and a month before the event, everything was cancelled without giving any valid reasons. Sometimes, volunteers will have all sorts of excuses for not showing up, or bring their drama to the projects.

In the field of social innovation, the financial gains usually is relatively low and the frustration is high as few people see the work as a low priority – and these people include the recipients of the support. Some  people over commit themselves. They give not only time and effort, they take on financial burdent to get things done. When things do not work out, these people burn out.

For me, I see this as a learning journey. I learn about different cultures, behaviors and people. I look at different solutions and share them between communities. I see myself more as a facilitator and a catalyst for change, and encourage the marginalized communities to want to change from within. I am not their savior, and without me, these marginalized communities still continue to exist. Although I may face a lot of rejections and failures, I put in my best effort but not take more responsibility that I can commit. I know that if I do have progress, many will benefit, and if I fail, I can still start over.

-- Robin Low