Enterprise SPARKS
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Enterprise SPARKS

3 Lessons from an Accidental Social Entrepreneur

Sebastien Marot is your quintessential “accidental” social entrepreneur. Like many other entrepreneurs in the field of social impact, once he serendipitously stumbled upon his mission — saving lives and building futures of marginalised children and youths — there was no going back. Sebastien is the Founder of the internationally acclaimed Cambodia-based organisation, Friends International. Having impacted over 100,000 at risk youths and children last year alone, Friends International is a unique hybrid social enterprise that supports marginalised communities through the creation of education and employment opportunities.

Sebastien was a judge and keynote speaker at the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia Awards Ceremony, co-organised by NUS Enterprise and DBS Foundation. Here are three lessons from his decade-long journey as a social entrepreneur:

1. Learn to adapt quickly

While travelling to Cambodia in the early 90’s, Sebastien, originally from France and then residing in Japan, was disheartened when he encountered children sleeping on the streets in Phnom Penh. Thinking he must help them in his own little way, he bought them bread and cheese. Although a noble act, he quickly realised it wasn’t fruitful because there were already enough people handing out food to these children. In fact, these children received up to 8 meals a day through handouts!

Still adamant to help, he then decided to provide them shelter. He purchased mattresses and pillows for the children, and once again, realised that the children didn’t want to sleep on mattresses in the sweltering Phnom Penn heat — they preferred the cool floor. Once again, his good intentions had failed.

Finally, after iterating, talking to his beneficiaries, immersing himself into the problem, and truly listening and understanding, he realised that hand-outs would never work — be it food or shelter. These children wanted something more; they wanted to earn a living and be in control of their own choices. Sebastien then decided to set up a vocational school, providing education and economic opportunities to these vulnerable children.

“You need to give the people what they want, accept what they want and quickly adapt.”

Photo © Friends International

2. Leverage the power of the community

As a social entrepreneur seeking to solve some of society’s deep rooted problems, one needs to understand the full picture. As Sebastien says:

“If you cannot look at the full picture, work with others.”

The key to Friends International’s success is the strong support it receives from its community, comprising governments, NGOs, the corporate sector and the public. With over 40 partners in 12 countries around the world, Friends International grows to impact more and more vulnerable children every year. Sebastien emphasises the importance of being holistic in approaching any social challenge, as well as having a supportive community and strong network.

3. Have a clear mission and be true to it

Friends International’s mission is to save lives and build the futures of at risk youths and children. In order to fulfill its mission, it has incorporated a hybrid social enterprise into its core activities. The vocational training provided to the youths is converted into real businesses, that not only strengthen that training but also generate revenue that is ploughed back into the businesses for greater impact. Through this, Friends International is able to become more sustainable and create lasting change. Sebastien stresses that even though models have to be changed and revised from time to time, one’s business must always be “at the service of your social mission.”

After studying at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, Sebastien Marot worked with the department of French Foreign Affairs and in marketing for L’Oreal, before being inspired to work with marginalised children. During his travels through Cambodia in 1994, he launched the award-winning Mith Samlanh project in Phnom Penh to address the many issues faced by marginalised children and youths. From Phnom Penh, he developed the internationally acclaimed social enterprise Friends-International, to provide protection, support and care for marginalised children and youth around the world, using a series of social business models. His awards include: the Order of Australia for Service to Humanity; the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship; and, the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year, Asia (2009). Friends-International was named a Top 100 Non-Governmental Organisation by The Global Journal in January 2012.

This article was originally published in Enterprise SPARKS, a quarterly newsletter by NUS Enterprise.

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