I used to be one of many ambitious youngsters who wanted to change the world from early age. Having a natural sensibility to problems humanity faces — poverty, war and social injustice, I decided to pursue a career that allowed me to make a real difference. After years studying international development and human rights, I was convinced that a position within the government or at the United Nations would be the right and only fit for me to promote positive impact in society.
I was not alone: every year, thousands of students go through a similar journey and feed the same dream, investing all their resources and energy to enter highly competitive organizations. Once in, they get deluded with bureaucratic systems and the low margin of maneuver for real change. Having experienced the same, I am convinced that there are other alternatives, often more impactful and creative, to change the world: one of them is to become a social entrepreneur! I was never told at the university that this was an option.
More and more, an increasing number of projects, NGOs and startups have been launched with the main purpose of doing social good through solid and sustainable models. For or not-for profit organizations operating in diverse fields, such as health, social justice and education, are acknowledged as key actors of social change. They naturally do not replace the work of government institutions, but indeed serve as an effective complement through their high capacity to innovate and great flexibility to operate and adapt.
From my experience working at WISE and exchanging with social entrepreneurs worldwide, I can tell that there is a lot happening and one of the most attractive areas today is certainly education and technology. Two reasons account for that: On one hand, education remains one of the biggest global challenges. According to UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low-income countries left school with basic reading skills. Big challenges are proportional to great opportunities.
On the other hand, technology has revolutionized the work of education providers by increasing the quality and access at lower costs. In addition, technology is an evolving engine that allows continuing creation and improvement at all fronts. These two elements combined have generated a boom of new initiatives in the field, with enough places for new players.
However, becoming a social entrepreneur requires expertise that formal education rarely provides. Few project founders have the multidimensional preparation necessary to avoid making serious mistakes and promote a positive impact on the ground. If we still take the example of the edtech field, we rarely find a profile with a full and equal understanding of both fields: education and technology. Instead, two caricatured types of profile are often the usual suspects found in this ecosystem: either they are mostly techies who design solutions to address educational challenges only because this is an attractive market; or they are individuals coming from the traditional educational background, but who were led to add the technological component to their projects due to the latest trends.
As a consequence of this lack of deep and multidimensional preparation, we often witness the struggle of social entrepreneurs on the field. Nine out of ten start ups fail today. To avoid ending up by being equally frustrated, here are a few takeaways:
- Let your ideas flow but keep your feet on the ground: a good idea alone is essential to help focus your energy and attract the interest of customers and investors. However, a good idea will never be successfully and sustainably implemented if not conceived within a solid and realistic model.
- Flatter your early customers: these are the customers who decided to pay for a solution they don’t really know, betting that it is going to make a difference in their lives. With the great competition of today’s world, these people are probably those who believe in you the most, after your mother. Work hard for their retention and they will become your key referrals for growth.
- Operate locally, observe globally: certain fields, notably when there is technology involved, have no longer boundaries for the expansion of markets. Keep your eyes open to international trends and innovative organizations, but bear in mind that social missions require local solutions. Run away from one-size-fits-all tools and design solutions that can be adaptable to your customers/beneficiaries needs, notably when these evolve.
- Understand your competitors as much as you understand your own project: by digging deeper into their mission, model and strategies, you may be surprised to find out that you actually have very few competitors. It is not easy to determine whether a library is a competitor of your online textbook platform or is it?
- Pitch, pitch, and pitch: assume that people never have time and that they are not interested in your project. You have then 30 seconds to convince them otherwise. Remember the 4Cs magical formula: be catchy, creative, clear and concise. How to do that? Practice, practice, and practice. If you want to be a social entrepreneur, you will pitch your project at least a billion times in your lifetime. The most comforting part of it is to know that one pitch will never be the same as the next one.
- Social change is not only about numbers: When you will seek for support, you will be asked to demonstrate numbers: number of beneficiaries, number of team members, number of revenue, numbers. Instead, adopt from the beginning a notion of multidimensional growth in which the number of customers and revenue streams are equally important than social impact and qualitative transformation. If you produce software, your goal is not only to achieve a sales record, but also to guarantee that your customers use the software properly and that this same software is changing their lives.
- Scale, but only at the right moment: Projects that are eager to scale rapidly may loose track of their impact, lower the quality of their services and not keep high standards at a larger scale. When it comes to growth and scaling, keeps the mantra: slowly but surely.
- Make noise: build your networks and communicate about your project. All the time. Use different types of communication channels: social media, word of mouth, pitches, conferences, etc. People need to hear about you and your initiative. All the time.
- Be positive, despite the endless challenges you will face: The life of an entrepreneur is very challenging, but the attitude and commitment of the founders is key to the success of the project and the team. Positive attitude often balances skills gap, lack of seniority or deficit of expertise. If you are motivated enough, you can do anything.
Even though it sounds quite challenging, today your capacity to make real change through your own enterprises and initiatives remains much greater than compared to what the majority of people can do at large organizations. The challenges faced are of different nature, but they mostly depend on your capacity to innovate and adapt, as of your initiative’s.
Do you want to change the world? Launch your own project!