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Who is a Social Entrepreneur

Who is a Social Entrepreneur

“I am setting up the most cutting edge marketplace for rural jobs,” a twenty something person approached me after my talk at a premier management institute recently.

“That’s brilliant, where are you at this now?” I asked.

“I have made few presentations to potential investors and won at a business plan competition too,” he replied with enthusiasm.

“Congratulations, is this a social enterprise or for-profit?” I asked

“Totally social. I want to participate in some more competitions. I want to be a TED Fellow and if I get the opportunity it will be big boost to my career. I need your support to strengthen my pitch,” he asked.

“Happy to help, but can you show what you’ve done? Like your product, have you built any partnerships, who are your mentors?” I asked.

“Oh, don’t worry about that, anyway this is not what I want to do for life, I have decided that I will try a new thing every two years. Who knows, you might see me as a monk in Bhutan in five years. My soul needs cleansing every once in a while,” he said.

My head started spinning hearing his reply, took a deep breath, smiled, wished him success and moved on.

I meet many people with dreams of starting social startups, most are earnest, some frivolous but many with no clarity on why they want to be a social entrepreneur.

Here are my pointers on “why you should not be a social entrepreneur?” 

1. Are you love-struck with the idea? 

You have a brilliant idea which you think can change the world, and are convinced that that’s the only way. Maybe, but do not automatically assume that every corporation and donor will open up their wallets to fund the idea. The reason great social entrepreneurs have built impactful organizations is because they were focused on the problem, worked hard to find ways to solve them and not necessarily hung-up on one idea.

2. Are you looking for a job?

If you have fixed monthly needs and don’t have a spouse or parents to back you up, perhaps you should find a job. Don’t expect to be paid till you prove that your idea truly works. Donors are not going be pleased if you took away a portion of their contribution as salary till they could see some impact on the ground. And even if you did achieve success, spending more than 7% to 10% of your total budgets on administrative costs is generally frowned upon.

3. Are you trying too many things?

I am guilty of this problem during my early stages. Every idea takes time to mature, it takes time for the community to build trust in you, and it takes time for your colleagues build competencies. Don’t rush to innovate or change too quickly because you don’t see visible outcomes sooner. Be patient, find different ways to learn from the field and start accepting that lack of clarity is necessarily not a bad thing.

4. Are you applying for too many awards and fellowships?

Every Tom, Dick and Harry has an award and runs a fellowship these days. When you are a young social entrepreneur it is tempting to be at these conferences, fellowships, platforms, forums or whatever these organizations may pedal. But these are serious distractions preventing you from doing work on the field. Even if you’ve had a life-changing story that made you start this organization, trust me in five years from now, people will be interested to know what you did on the ground and not why you started it. It is important to network, to learn from others, to build partnerships, but choose them wisely.

5. Are you starving most of the time?

Even after 4 years if you are still anxious about paying your staff’s next month salary, then clearly there’s problem in your business model. You should take tough decisions to either reduce your overheads so that you could work within your budgets, or quit and change tracks. Constant money problems can severely curtail your creativity and mental capacity to deliver. If you can’t pay yourself and your colleagues properly, how will you put food on the plate of a poor person?

These may apply to people who run their organisations or just dreaming of one. These are learnings from my own experience of being social worker/entrepreneur for the past 15 years, mostly wise-cracks born out of my personal failures. 

I am not worried about the flippant ones like the young person I had mentioned earlier, they are like moths that are attracted to light; they will fly away to the next bright light and to the next. I am concerned about the earnest ones, who are emotionally invested in a problem or an idea but struggling with the ways of the world.

Not everyone is a social entrepreneur, and it is ok.


About the Author, Sriram V. Ayer

Sriram is the founder of the award winning NGO, Nalandaway foundation which helps disadvantaged children realise their dreams through the power of arts. He recently co-founded “Wandering Artist,” Chennai’s new hip art and culture hub, which India Today magazine called it as “one of the top five creative spaces to watch out for in India”. Named by the Outlook Business magazine as one of the top 50 social entrepreneurs in India, he has received numerous awards, including the World Bank’s development marketplace award, “Architect of the future” by Waldzell Institute, Ashoka Fellowship and more recently the Millennium Award for Innovation in Education instituted by US AID, Govt. of India, and FICCI. He is also the author of the much acclaimed novel “The Story of a Suicide.”

  • Feb 04, 2019

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