The Impact Hub Berlin founders. Image: Silicon Allee

Making a Real Impact on Social Entrepreneurship in Berlin

At first glance, entrepreneurship is all about money — you found a startup, you grow it, you sell it, you get rich. But building a business is also about creating something, and social entrepreneurship is a growing trend. Impact Hub Berlin, an innovation and founding centre for social and sustainable entrepreneurs, is one of many new projects cropping up in this space, and is now planning to grow its space, its community and its impact. Lesley Haw caught up with co-founder Nele Kapretz to talk social innovation.

Putting people before profits isn’t always easy: For the Impact Hub Berlin team there have been glass ceilings to break, seemingly endless financial and logistical barriers to overcome, flat hierarchies to implement and the odd German Chancellor or two to rub shoulders with.

But with the sun blazing through the third floor window at the project’s current base on a leafy street in Neukölln, things are looking up for the team, including general manager Nele Kapretz. The native Berliner left behind her first career in marketing at T-Mobile when she decided a change of direction was in order. “I wanted to do something better with my life with creativity and time, and have more impact,” she said, and that led to a Master degree in Sustainable Resource Management and a desire to combine business with sustainability, “because if you really want to change things, the two areas need to connect. It’s nice if we all ride our bikes and grow our own tomatoes, but that’s not going to really bring about the changes that we need.”

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This in turn led to the world of social entrepreneurship and a friend who had started Impact Hub in Zurich, who in turn encouraged Nele to do so in Berlin. She did exactly that, together with her fellow founders Anna Lässer and Leon Reiner, with the stated aim of creating an ecosystem for those who want to bring about change through entrepreneurship. After the initial pain of jumping through hoops and securing some money, they found space at Agora last April — but soon they will be moving to the lower, more up-and-coming end of Friedrichstrasse when they move into their new premises.

But even with their temporary home, they have managed to achieve a fair amount, taking on and supporting project developers including the Green Fashion roadmap, a map that summarises and shows you where to find upcyling and concept stores for fair fashion in Berlin. Another entrepreneur created an app to assist people with eating disorders monitor their food intake, with the data accessible by doctors.

How Germany Can Support Innovation

And their efforts have not gone unnoticed — German news magazine Der Spiegel recently carried a picture of Nele together with Angela Merkel at the Chancellor’s tech and social entrepreneurship event at the International German Forum in January. The 120 people in attendance were discussing innovation and society, and Merkel impressed Nele: “She’s very smart and it’s amazing how much she picks up. There were people saying the Chancellor was just putting herself in the front row with all these innovative people for show.” In actual fact, however, Merkel was keen to talk about how the German government can support innovation.

“I was actually quite surprised when the Chancellor said Germany is such a technology-focused country when it comes to innovation,” Nele added, “and that they have to look more into digital and social innovation in the future, as it’s not all going to be technology. I didn’t think they were that far ahead, but now for example, there is a government fund for high tech founders and they are allocating part of this fund to social innovation, so things are actually happening.”

It’s a sure sign, Nele believes, that the powers that be in Germany are dedicated to changing things and supporting social and digital innovation in the future. “I think that’s quite a big step. The UK is much further ahead with this. They are at least allocating more money for founders in these areas.”

A Good Investment

And if you’re struggling with the cold Berlin winters, then the UK is not the only country with this kind of funding in place — Startup Chile offers $40,000 for founders to go and start a company in the South American country. “It’s a good investment, because they are very smart people and they have a different life history and trajectory than the normal Harvard graduates. For them, $40,000 is a lot and you can have a good life.”

But even if the requisite money is in place, what exactly is social entrepreneurship? Nele defines it as solving societal problems with an entrepreneurial approach or through entrepreneurial means, and says it is not about being an NGO. The people that work with her are all highly skilled and ambitious. Everyone needs money to survive, and having some extra cash instead of scraping around makes life easier. But just how important is money in social innovation?

“Money does matter. It’s a broad topic of controversy. If I work for a social business, Soul Bottles for example, why should I earn much less money than people in conventional businesses, where all the great talent is going? That’s what matters at the end. I think people should be compensated fairly. [But t]here’s a difference between getting what you deserve to earn, or a reasonable salary, and getting crazily rich.”

For Nele, her vision and her sense of sincerity, fairness and passion are what comes through when she talks about her desire to change things for the better for the social return, not just the financial rewards. Does this approach create more harmony and less narcissism in the workplace? It’s certainly easier to collaborate if you’re working with people who share the same attitude or philosophy. “We bring people together and if you want to grow your idea, you need partners, networks and support, which we provide. I think there’s always this fine line that we don’t want come across as this hippy place, we want to be highly professional, yet we want to offer a space that’s like a home. There’s a global association of Impact Hubs, but on a local level we are all independent.”

Putting Values Into Practice

Flat hierarchies — where everyone on the team, from intern to CEO, is treated largely the same — are far better known in the startup world than elsewhere, and they have a useful role to play in social entrepreneurship. “Collaboration, trust and courage are our three values which create a very nice working environment.”

Putting these values into practice is the focus for Impact Hub. Its efforts included the recent Startup Weekend Berlin Social Innovation event earlier in March, a three-day challenge for around 100 developers, designers, marketers, product managers and startup enthusiasts to come together to share ideas, form teams, build product and launch startups.

And on a more regular basis, there are weekly ‘winedowns’ on Fridays and a group lunch every Wednesday. Tuesday yoga sessions have recently started which are open to the public too, while a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for their new space incorporating various workshops is underway.

This approach is working pretty well, with larger companies also interested in working with Impact Hub including the likes of Volkswagen and BMW, while there has also been a B Corp event. Additionally, Nele and her team recently gave a talk to 180 Adidas managers about community culture and ecosystems. “They said it was inspirational. Before it was ‘we’re the company, we produce, we sell’. Now it’s the user-centred approach. What do they want? How do they live? I think with all the big companies things are getting a bit more transparent.”

Impact Hub also works with The Changer, which promotes positive impacts in the workplace, and visits universities to encourage students to set up their own businesses. The desire to improve lives even extends to the mundane — Impact Hub has ergonomically designed, 95 percent-recycled Herman Miller chairs. “We’re taking care of our physical health and practising what we preach. It’s all very empowering. In the future we will look to bring in more big companies and corporations, government foundations, other businesses that are maybe already more established, social businesses and pretty much anyone who feels they’re drawn to social innovation.

“I think that should be relevant for anyone.”

Impact Hub Berlin is running a crowdfunding campaign to help achieve their goals — you can find out more and donate here.