You’ve heard the buzz, and you want to start a social enterprise. That’s great – but where do you begin? Just as every tree begins with a seed, every enterprise begins with an idea. Maybe you already have an idea. If so, congratulations – you’ve come to the right place! This is the first post in an ongoing series on how to get your social enterprise off the ground.
Identify the Problem
What is a social enterprise? Basically, it’s a solution. The successful impact entrepreneur identifies a problem that no one else has solved, and then solves it. The first step is to identify a problem. How do you identify problems? Look around you. Talk to people. When in doubt, a good place for inspiration is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Does everyone in your community have food to eat, water to drink, and a place to sleep? Maybe you can help with employment, health, or physical security.
Create a Solution
You’ve identified a problem. The second step is to create a solution. Now, before you run off and come up with The Next Big Thing, do some research. Maybe you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There may be a business model out there that you can adapt, and it may not even be used in a social enterprise. Look at Grameen Bank. Mohammad Yunus
didn’t invent finance – he just adapted it to the bottom of the pyramid. Or look at Sustainable Harvest. David Griswold didn’t invent coffee exporting – he just adapted it to include local farmers. Consider that your solution may not require revolutionary innovation – it may just require inventive adaptation.
So – you’ve identified a problem and created a solution. This means you’re already ahead of the curve, but you’re not done yet. The third step is to make your solution sustainable, whether that means your solution is practical and scalable (in the business sense), or minimal in its impact on the environment and resources. (Ideally, it’s both.) For example: mosquito nets in Africa. For decades, aid agencies imported mosquito nets to Africa. The aid agencies identified a problem (malaria, which, untreated, causes the deaths of nearly 1 million people in Africa every year), and then created a solution (distribution of mosquito nets). But their solution wasn’t sustainable – if funding dried up, aid agencies would no longer be able to distribute mosquito nets. This presented an untenable scenario.
A more sustainable solution to the malaria problem would be to develop and grow mosquito net production in-country. A to Z Textile Mills, a Tanzanian company that received start-up capital from Acumen Fund in 2003, is doing just that. A to Z is not only addressing the malaria epidemic, it is lowering shipping costs for each bednet, and creating jobs for Africans.
Problem leads to solution leads to sustainability. And, if you’re lucky, Jacqueline Novogratz mentions you in a TED Talk (at 12:20).