Finding Meaning As A Social Entrepreneur
Resources are expanding for small businesses dedicated to solving social issues.
Something exciting is happening on the small business scene. More entrepreneurs are starting – and successfully running – ventures that generate profit while helping to better the world.
Their companies are part of the emerging “social enterprise” sector. Examples include a bakery in Nova Scotia that provides training and jobs for individuals living with mental illness, a Newfoundland/Labrador inn whose profits are invested locally for sustainable prosperity, and a solar heater maker in British Columbia that helps reduce a building’s carbon footprint.
For budding entrepreneurs, social enterprise lets you pair your social values with your career path. Resources to get you on your way are blossoming throughout Canada.
Social Enterprise: Huh?
“Social enterprise essentially describes any venture or business whose primary goal is to solve a social issue,” says Elisa Birnbaum, publisher and editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine, a digital publication of social entrepreneurship.
The Social Enterprise Council of Canada offers another definition: “Social enterprises are community-based businesses that sell goods or services in the market place to achieve a social, cultural and/or environmental purpose; they reinvest their profits to maximize their social mission.”
Private Sector vs. Nested Within A NonProfit
With regard to for-profit social enterprises, Birnbaum points out that two main types exist. There are independent businesses which have a social mission at their core. For instance Social Nature, based in Vancouver, is a privately owned social sampling company. Members get to try greener products like organic deodorants, vegan mascara, healthy snacks and eco-friendly cleaners for free.
The other main type of social enterprise “is a business nested within a nonprofit organization,” says Birnbaum. There are many such instances of these, as with KLINK, a seller of sustainable coffee that hires people returning home from prison or who have yet to receive a pardon. It operates as an arm of the nonprofit John Howard Society in Toronto.
Interested in starting up a social enterprise, or converting an existing concern? Step one is to develop a big idea for self-employment. Then seek out local resources, many of which are backed by city or provincial governments. “Begin by connecting with social enterprise incubators, advisory agencies and related industry associations,” says Birnbaum.
Visit nearby social businesses and network with other socialpreneurs. Ask where they secured start-up funding and obtained subsidized support services for small businesses.
Also, “Try not go get so caught up in the social mission that you overlook fundamentals. Have a solid business plan, realistic funding goals and a maintainable growth model,” she advises. Bankers, social impact investors, and social enterprise funding agencies will want to see attractive rates of return and reasonable risk on any financing they provide. Make sure you’re ready to be your own boss if this is your initial small business.
Choose A Mission That Ignites You
Solving social problems with an innovative enterprise can be exhilarating, but also daunting. Competing with established suppliers that are less focused on a triple bottom line (consisting of people, planet and profits), or finding a relatively unoccupied yet profitable niche, are real challenges.
Despite the obstacles, people of different ages and backgrounds (with some shared entrepreneurial traits) have created viable social enterprises. Like the Pollock’s Hardware Co-op in Winnipeg, which provisions building supplies to Build Inc. and Manitoba Green Retrofit, general contractors that hire people who face serious employment barriers.
Among other examples? Montreal’s Percolab, a technology company that’s been supporting social innovation in organizations and communities since 2007. Edmonton’s 4 Good Homes Services deals in moving, cleaning and junk removal, offering entry level employment that pays a living wage. Ottawa’s BeadWorks enables at-risk youth and street involved kids a safe space to design, craft, and sell one of a kind jewelry.
What the Future Holds
In Canada this early stage sector is undergoing promising changes. For the first time, anyone who wants to invest in a for-profit social venture can do so via the Social Venture Connexion platform. That should substantially increase available funding and kick start new initiatives.
Birnbaum is optimistic about social enterprise’s prospects. “I believe it is going to be the way we look at business, I really do. People want to infuse a sense of social consciousness into their work, and into the businesses they start and run.” While she admits to being a bit idealistic, it’s hard to deny that the proof is sprouting up all over.