An Introduction To Social Entrepreneurship

Social Entrepreneurship has become a growing trend in many countries. More people try to find new ways of addressing social or environmental issues through enterprises that work towards supporting the sustainability of planet earth. Also, investors, corporations and big donor organizations look for social projects with the objective of contributing to a ‘common good’, with social responsibility. 

In developing countries like Cambodia, the concept of NGO (non-governmental organization) has been historically associated with humanitarian support. However, at present, many traditional NGOs are forced to reinvent their operating models with the aim of being economically sustainable through revenue-generating activities.

I decided to write about this topic after a casual conversation with Melissa Liu, the Country Manager of EnergyLab, an organization that was founded to support businesses and tech projects that are focused on moving the world toward 100% clean energy solutions. At present, I am also writing a Thesis focused on performing an in-depth analysis of the ‘Social Entrepreneurship Landscape’ in Cambodia. 

I have been passionate about Social Entrepreneurship since 2017, the year in which I moved to Battambang province, north-west Cambodia, and started to support the ‘Human Resource’ department of a network of social enterprises. Back then, our work was to visit remote communities in rural areas, and assess the needs of the people living there. After the assessment phase, we explained the potential beneficiaries regarding the possibility of working for these social enterprises; mainly a Textile Production Center and a Hospitality Center.

My heart was touched’ by the stories of the people we were able to serve. I remember a young woman called Sophal who lived in the area of Banan, around 30 Kilometres away from the city of Battambang. Sophal had a physical disability that impeded her from walking and moving normally. When she was young, her parents would not allow her to go to school because they thought that she would never be able to become a good student due to her disability. Members of the ‘Outreach’ project team that I worked with were able to help Sophal develop her self-confidence after years of lack of social interaction.

After various conversations with her family members, the team managed to convince them to let Sophal work for the Textile Production Center (mentioned above). Sophal was able to develop her abilities and become an important part of the Center, helping her family back with the income she generated. The Textile Production Centre continues operating nowadays even though the operations have suffered in a substantial way from the Covid 19 pandemic and consequent economic crisis. 

Stories like this make me believe that social enterprises can be an effective way of providing opportunities and generating income for the local communities. I truly believe in entrepreneurship as a key to development and innovation, especially when directed towards improving lives and wellbeing, working with local elements and respecting the environment.

I would now like to briefly introduce the concept of ‘Social Enterprise’, which has no general definition that applies to everyone.

What is a Social Enterprise?

The concept of ‘Social Enterprise’ can be hard to define, mainly because it has evolved in the past years and it can be controversial given the fact that it stands in between the public, private and nonprofit sectors.‘Social Enterprise’ can be defined differently also depending on the area. In the United States, it is usually related to Philanthropy (a way of doing charity), whereas in Europe and Asia it is more oriented towards cooperation, with a strong emphasis on community development and economic management. In recent years, there are more enterprises that look for social responsibility. 

* Reference: Kerlin, J. (2009) Social Enterprise: A Global Comparison, University Press of New England.)

The most relevant definition I have been able to find through my research is the one provided by Social Enterprise Alliance (2021), which suggests the following basic definition of social enterprise: ‘Organizations that address a non-satisfied necessity or help solve a social-environmental problem through a market-directed approach. 

As always, thank you for your time you have taken to read the blog. I would be very happy to answer any questions or comments you may have. In future blogs from this series, I will zoom in on the current ‘social entrepreneurship’ landscape in Cambodia and my personal take on the new upcoming challenges.

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