A Reminder for the “Social” in Social Entrepreneurship

An outline of the problems I’ve seen as a budding Social Entrepreneur in a quickly globalizing world.

by Waseem Shabout

As someone who wants to be a driving force for social change and innovation in the world and someone who has already tried and failed a few times in my pursuit, I am happy to announce to all of you that I have found THE solution to every social entrepreneurs problem:

The solution is simple… It’s the problem that is the hard part.

Let me explain…

The Problem With the Problem

Today more than ever people are understanding the potential for business to be one of the most powerful forces in poverty alleviation and sustainable development. With Social Entrepreneurship becoming a more sought after and sustainable alternative to non-profit work, we really should applaud those in this field for the work they are doing.

However, there is one thing, one problem, one misunderstanding that everyone needs to understand before we continue with the work we do, and money we spend: Understand what the problem really is before selling a solution.

Companies today spend endless amounts of money on providing the solution to a problem that they have defined. Though this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is often times not a good thing. In fact when it comes to a social enterprise, it could mean that the impact per dollar trying to be achieved could be near to nothing!

Let’s take the well-known “One Laptop Per Child” program for example; though the program is very appealing in theory, in practice there is very little proof showing correlation between the distribution of the computers and increased educational outcomes. In a study by J-Pal, a respected poverty alleviation analytics organization, they found that for dollar per impact, the OLPC was a failure… a sad reality of many social enterprises, and nonprofits today.

One Laptop Per Child is just one example of what happens when the developed world sees it as their job to define the problems and provide the solutions for the developing world. Sure, it is great to use business as a problem solving tool. But first be sure that the problem is in fact a problem, and that the solution isn’t just a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

Image of the OLPC Laptop (edited from http://bit.ly/1UdkovG)

Understand the problem first…

Then come up with a solution

How is it that an organization from thousands of miles away can be the one to go into a nation for a short period of time, and come out and say “Hmm, these people have this problem, and I have their solution.” It’s not that simple. And as result, it isn’t uncommon to find companies coming up with a solution before even seeking to understand the problem. (Give laptops to children in poverty.)

It’s a solution that from a business standing is a marketing gem, but look back at the problem, is the solution really addressing that… and is that problem even a problem at this point?

These are some of the most important questions any social enterprise should ask before they begin working on a project that has to do with any problem that they have defined. Why spend money and time working on something that doesn’t really benefit anyone other than the conscience of those who invest in it?

That isn’t the purpose of Social change, and for sure not the goal of any social entrepreneur.

My Personal Connection

So with that as an introduction, I’d like to talk about my last weekend at the Hult School of business “HULT Prize.”

The d.Jugaad Team

The HULT Prize is an annual, global competition put on by the HULT School of Business with the goal of empowering the greatest social entrepreneurial minds to go forward with their social enterprises in hopes of getting an investment of One-Million dollars at a Five-Million dollar evaluation. Now this is AWESOME - an entire competition and possible venture accelerator revolving around social entrepreneurship!

But… there is one problem I noticed over and over with some of the other “businesses” and at one point even my own…

So many businesses are addressing problems that they themselves have defined, while operating in areas that they have only seen online. It is very noble to try and help out those who need it most, but it can also be very wrong, and often times not one's job to be the one to define the problems of someone else and then give that someone the solution.

We see over and over larger companies doing this same thing. Take for example, any of the hundreds of volunteer based organizations that go into developing nations and build houses, or wells, or whatever it may be. This sounds like such a noble thing to do.

But it really isn’t.

In an article I read a few years back Pacific Standard showed how this kind of “global volunteerism” actually is often times detrimental to developing nations, taking away possible job opportunities from the locals, creating a façade of global cooperation and producing what I like to call “Band-Aid solutions.”

Social innovation cannot be just a way to get people to invest in your company for their conscience’s sake while providing “Band-Aid” solutions to complex problems. More than making money, social entrepreneurship is there to make lasting positive change, and there is no way to fix a problem that doesn’t exist, and if that problem does exist you can’t patch a bullet hole with a Band-Aid.

Final Takeaway

When trying to do social work, it is so important to remember that the work you are doing is only social because you are dealing with people. So when making a decision on how to do something, it is pretty amazing to realize that you have an entire team of experts there to help you help them!

Those who your venture is addressing, they know what their problems are, they may even know their solutions… so why not ask them?

…They are the experts after all!

“So… Waseem, Whatcha Gonna do ‘bout it?”

Now after coming to terms with what I learned, my team and I are trying to act on it, and get advice from the experts we addressed above.

Stay tuned for my next article on how we are doing so, and as result solving a problem for a problem that has yet to be defined… if that makes any sense.

And if you can’t wait that long, check out: www.djugaad.com.

We would love your feedback!

Thanks Arpit, April, and Sukanya for the help!

And thank you Professor Sulkowski, the Lewis Institute, and Hult Business School for pushing us to make our vision a reality!