Impact Connections: The Secret Sauce

The Secret Sauce
by Sebastian De Beurs
Plan II Honors Program, The University of Texas at Austin

Take all the challenges of regular entrepreneurship. Now add extremely challenging societal, health, and environmental problems. Voila: you have social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs work on ventures to affect social change. A solar energy startup, a restaurant that specifically employs underserved people, or a bakery that funds an orphanage and employs those at risk for the sex trade are all examples of social enterprises. Yet sustaining a social enterprise remains tough for founders, teams, and social investors.

What is the secret sauce of successful social entrepreneurship?

This question has perplexed founders, investors, policymakers, academics, and students across the world. While the code has yet to be cracked, I have become convinced that the answers lie in a close observation of social entrepreneurs around the world. Here are three lessons from social enterprises across the world on what makes a successful social entrepreneur:

1. Dedicate in Full

Social entrepreneurship is not a side gig. The challenge you are solving has to become the primary objective of your life.

Barrett Nash is the founder of SafeMotos, a social enterprise based in Rwanda that functions as an Uber for African motorcycle taxis that offers economic mobility to drivers and leads the recruitment of female drivers. Nash shares that social entrepreneurship “means going after a challenge worth solving and that has to be your primary focus.” Only with a relentless focus has SafeMotos been able impact the lives of its drivers in Rwanda.

Pakistani social entrepreneur Hamza Farrukh agrees. Farrukh launched Bondh-E-Shams, a social venture leveraging solar energy to generate water access for rural, communities in Pakistan. “My advice is to enter this space with a very clear head and stay focused” he shares. “You need to be willing to dedicate your time and your full energy because it does take all of you.” Hamza continues to apply these lessons to Bondh-E-Shams, whether he is in the U.S. raising funds, or in rural Pakistani communities raising water out of the ground through solar-powered mechanisms.

For Stacie Whisonant, the military provided a template for successful social entrepreneurship. She founded Pay Your Tuition (PYT) Funds as a social enterprise dedicated to the student loan crisis. For Stacie, social entrepreneurship is about getting to the finish line. “We were up every day at 4am in the military and that was 8 years of my life. That has conditioned me to get to the finish line,” Stacie shares. “For me, getting to the finish line is seeing PYT be successful.”

Full dedication is not an optional benefit, it is a requirement for the successful social entrepreneur.

2. Internalize Failure

A recurring theme across social entrepreneurs is their constant dance with failure. When social entrepreneur Blair Glencourse founded Accountability Lab, his objective was to use innovative means to fight corruption. For example, Accountability Lab works with rappers in Nigeria and Liberia to fight corruption through the lyrical and political powers of hip hop. In hindsight, Accountability Lab is an incredible success story of global social impact. Yet a closer look reveals that Blair’s days were filled with challenges. “At the beginning, we didn’t have any money. I had never built an organization before. Because we hadn’t done anything, we had no reputation and no credibility.”

That same lack of capital and credibility plagues many social enterprises. Yet for Blair, each failure was a moment of feedback and reflection. It is not that social entrepreneurs succeed in spite of failures. They succeed because offailures.

3. Build your Support System

The loneliness of social entrepreneurship can be overwhelming. Visioning and making things happen can be a lonesome endeavor. But social entrepreneur Ronnie Washington has a remedy. As the founder of Onward Financial, Ronnie says that “As an entrepreneur it can oftentimes feel lonely so it’s really important to create your own community and your own group of supporters.” He goes on to explain that “having the right “people around you to support you and lift you up when things don’t go so well in your business life is really important.” To thrive as a social entrepreneur, you have to build a support system.

Social entrepreneur Nadya Okamoto finds her source of strength elsewhere. “My mom has always been a life coach for me and has always supported me to be really ambitious,” she explains. Nadya founded Period, a social enterprise dedicated to making menstrual hygiene a basic right in achieving gender equality. Period provides direct services to those in need and advocates for key policy changes such as the repeal of tampon taxes. Speaking about her mother, Nadya shares that she “reminds me to take a breath and coaches me a lot on professional decisions as well as my social life.” From friends to parents, a community of support is needed to survive and thrive as a social entrepreneur.

Sebastian De Beurs is a Longhorn and Co-Founder of GroundBreakers, a global network of social entrepreneurs and social impact platform.