The rise of social entrepreneurship is a topic that either excites you-or one you glance over because of a failure to understand its role and socioeconomic impact. Either way, we’re here to provide some insights based on our experience at the Social Enterprise World Forum.

Firstly, it is important not to confuse social entrepreneurship with charity – social enterprises are for-profit businesses that focus on solving social issues, or provide goods and services like any another business, but offer impact beyond financial success. The thing that all social enterprises have in common, is that they reinvest the majority of their profits in support of a social or environmental cause and play a crucial role in uplifting marginalized communities. And while there is great traction in social entrepreneurship across the globe, there is still much to do: “Success should not be measured on what we have achieved, but on what we still have left to accomplish,” acknowledges James Okina, Street Priests Inc.

If you think only millennials and Gen Z support brands associated with societal impact, think again. Across the globe, there is a mindful movement of consumers and prospective employees who are becoming increasingly interested in engaging with businesses that support worthy causes and that understand the role they play in solving societal issues.

In October 2019, more than 1,200 social enterprises, activists, politicians, and advocates from 70 countries gathered in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the twelfth annual Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF). Among them, SAP hosted 48 entrepreneurs from across the world in support of connecting global innovators and growing the social entrepreneurship movement. Here are our top 5 takeaways from the Social Enterprise World Forum that we believe others can learn from:

1. Economics first:

“Don’t get so caught up in your passion that you forget to build a viable business.”
– Melat Yosef, Vitabite.
Through various testimonies delivered at SEWF2019, it is clear that many social enterprise startups fail. In fact, startup failure rates range from 80-90%. Sometimes, barriers to market outnumber opportunities to market. Sometimes failure is purely as a result of the additional layer of complexity, namely societal impact.
As a social entrepreneur, your situation might be that capital is limited – both human and cashflow. The demand for your offering is abundant and the community need is high. Ask yourself: As a social enterprise, should you first focus on commercial viability and revenue so that you can deliver greater impact in support of your purpose? Or – should you instead focus on delivering on your promise of societal impact that, in turn, will attract and retain customers?

This chicken and egg scenario was highly debated at the Forum. In our minds, there is a clear winner in the argument. As a social entrepreneur, you must always offer superior products and/or services to lead the market. Holding the designation of social enterprise or entrepreneur doesn’t mean you can offer substandard offerings. Customers demand excellence regardless of the social element of this endeavor. “Keep your standards high and your costs low,” asserted Nikki Germany, Chief Growth Officer of e-commerce provider Copia.

Tenacity is key to survival. Various of the social entrepreneurs we spoke to, testified that they were only successful at their second or third attempt in establishing their business. If you’re part of the majority whose organization has failed, Bernard Kirk, Founder and CEO of The Camden Education Trust urges you not to give up. “You might fail now, but that will lead to success later on down the road.”

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