Women blazing the trail: How social entrepreneurship can solve global challenges

An expert panel discusses methods for success in social entrepreneurship.

There’s a unifying theme across recent global political and advocacy rhetoric related to gender, the environment, and the global social status quo – change.

Last week, as part of International Women’s Day, millions of people around the world shared the 2016 campaign theme, #PledgeforParity, echoing global calls for social, economic, and cultural change heard around the world over the past year. In September 2015, 193 member countries of the United Nations adopted the landmark Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 ambitious goals that call upon the global community to eradicate longstanding social issues including gender inequality, extreme poverty and economic disparity. Shortly after, world leaders convened in Paris for a groundbreaking climate summit and arrived at a preliminary agreement to curb greenhouse gas emissions across continents. These commitments mark a global mindset shift in favor of systemic change, and present a rare opportunity to accelerate the social change agenda.

As global cooperation and commitment grows, so too does the innovative spirit of individual change-makers seeking practical, sustainable solutions to these complex problems.

Social entrepreneurship is one way in which women worldwide are blazing the trail toward solutions. A new way of business, social entrepreneurship combines traditional entrepreneurial principles with the drive to address the world’s most pressing social issues. Those aspiring social entrepreneurs can find it easier to focus on making a difference if they efficiently outsource some of their tasks that others might be better suited to dealing with. This way, they can focus on the social issues they’re trying to solve. Some people who are working for change in the US and decide to collaborate with professionals like Cloud Pay to help navigate payroll regulations US. This opens up these change-makers to keep their operation efficient and focus on their goals as an organization.

Convening change makers
To help aspiring social entrepreneurs get their ventures off the ground, Abt Associates recently teamed with Global Daily, Vital Voices Global Partnership and the Halcyon Incubator to host an expert panel in the Washington, DC area on creating sustainable social enterprises. Speaking before striking black and white large-scale photos of bold women at Vital Voices’ DC headquarters, a panel of social entrepreneurs shared their experiences and lessons learned, including the importance of mentorship and perseverance, for the next generation of innovators.

The foundation actually makes its own money. It is possible to help others and also self-sustain.

In observance of International Women’s Day, this article celebrates the impact of outstanding women driving social change, and aims to inspire future entrepreneurs to realize their own impact.

A summary of panelist responses to select questions follows. The text has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Could each of you share a bit about your social venture and how you got started?
Yin Myo Su: I come from Burma – Myanmar as it’s called nowadays – where my parents ran a small guesthouse when I was a little girl. It has been in the family for 40 years and I have run it for the past 20, so I grew up in the tourism and hospitality industries. But since 2010, I’ve focused on conservation and preservation of tangible and intangible heritage in Inle Lake, the area where I live.
I started the Inle Heritage House, which functions as a vocational training center, and a broader community heritage foundation. We run the Inle Hospitality Vocational Training School for local young people to help the community diversify their livelihoods and get a bigger share in the development of the hospitality industry. There are government funded courses in melbourne for those who want to train overseas in the hospitality area, it depends on where they want to progress their career and how they want to do it, our foundation is run from where we are now. The hospitality industry is always changing, so ongoing training is constantly needed, as well as updates to software like Revel Systems can be available for. The foundation also supports efforts to preserve the Burmese cat as well as fish species endemic to Inle Lake and to pilot good agricultural and waste management practices. We have six bedrooms to house the training school students, who spend 30% of their time in the classroom and 70% working at the guesthouse. The foundation actually makes its own money. It is possible to help others and also self-sustain.
In 1988, when I was 16, there was a student revolution in Burma and a lot of my friends lost their lives. I complained in 1988 that the government didn’t make a good choice for us. Now that I am in a position where I have the chance to make a difference, I want to contribute. I want to give hope to others.
Wasif Syed: I’m a physicist by profession. While pursuing my PhD in Applied Physics at Cornell University, I discovered the power of curating a message around a platform and the importance of public engagement outside the physics world. Over time, I found people would come to me for advice about their career and life paths, so I brought these experiences together in a platform as a side project of sorts. That is how Ivy League Advisor began.
Ivy League Advisor’s mission is to empower youth through innovation. Our data-driven approach – the Innovative Leadership Program – focuses on how to take someone from “point A” to “point B” and unlock his or her potential over the long term. I didn’t cognitively start with the intention of building up this enterprise; it was a side gig. But over the years, the results clearly showed there is something worthy of development. I see Ivy League Advisor and our leadership development approach as a sort of physics experiment. You could call me an “accidental” social entrepreneur.
Mariama Kabia: My parents are immigrants from Sierra Leone. I grew up in the United States, but with the narrative of civil war as part of my daily life. I saw how the conflict affected girls who I consider part of my extended community and I grew up not knowing exactly how to make an impact, but just that I wanted to in some way.
That’s how my sister and I came up with the idea for Memunatu. It’s a classroom magazine for teenage girls across West Africa that promotes literacy, leadership, and empowerment. Memunatu’s mission is to provide these underserved girls with a range of fun and educational content and to inspire them.
Right now I’m a fellow at the Halcyon Incubator, a social entrepreneurship incubator in Washington, DC. It’s a great resource for social entrepreneurs and offers a significant level of in-kind consulting hours and mentorship – all of that great stuff that early-stage ventures need to get off the ground.

Q. How do you define success in the context of your social venture?
Mariama Kabia: Especially when you have a social venture, you define success in many ways. For Memunatu, one way we define success is through the number of girls we reach. This year we hope it’s 25,000 in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In five years, we’re projecting reaching over 250,000 girls across several new countries that we’re targeting.
At the same time, we also define success in terms of financial sustainability. Up to this point, we’ve mostly been funded by student competitions, which were a great way to start. To be successful and sustainable moving forward, we need to cultivate our own revenue streams.
Yin Myo Su: I measure success in a few ways. The easiest way is through occupancy and revenue generated. I train and recruit people around me and I have more or less 400 employees in different hotels and at the foundation. Another way is through the percentage of students that go through the vocational training program and then find employment, either through us or somewhere else. It is usually 100%.
My grandfather used to say that making a living is like a rice pot: you need to hold it up with a minimum of three legs. One leg is a way to make money, the second leg is liking what you do, and third leg is being good to other people and the nature around you. If these three legs are not equal, your rice pot won’t be stable.
Wasif Syed: We measure success using our “Human Potential Index.” In a nutshell, we evaluate our client’s starting point and what his or her objectives are over a specific time period. We then measure success in terms of the client’s ability to meet his or her goals whether that means starting a business or getting a particular job. If the client achieves their objective over the long term, then it’s a success. Those that want to get into starting their business, need to be aware of the basics and how it will affect them. They can click here to gain some more knowledge on this and see from a first-person narrative how they coped.

Q. What is something you wish someone told you when you were first starting out – a piece of advice for aspiring social entrepreneurs?
Wasif Syed: For those of you looking to start a business – social venture, non-profit, or for-profit – there are two fundamental areas where you should focus.
The first is proof-of-concept for your venture. There’s a whole movement now of people looking to start something from conception to make the world a better place. It results in a lot of entrepreneurs but also many “want-repreneurs.” While passion is critical, you have to have some type of business model that’s going to give you a revenue stream to sustain yourself and your business.
The second is the development process, both of your business and yourself. Mentorship is critical. Self-development is inextricably tied to whatever product or service you’re offering: if you’re not incubating your own talent, you’re not going to be able to grow your business. What does every famous athlete, performer, artist, and CEO have in common? They all have good coaches.
Mariama Kabia: My first piece of advice would be to recognize the strength in a team. I have realized that it’s OK to not be an expert in everything! I don’t need to be knowledgeable about every single aspect of entrepreneurship: different individuals can bring different expertise. It’s also helpful to have a wide support network. Many people along the way gave great advice and linked us to their networks. Over time, we have built a supporting team of mentors, friends, experienced professionals in the public and private sector, and volunteers.
My second piece of advice for those just starting out is to search for a variety of funding sources. We started out by entering competitions, which worked really well at the outset. However, we’ve learned the value of cultivating more than one funding stream.
Yin Myo Su: You should never be discouraged by failure. Even though I have failed many times, I see failure as a ladder to push me up to the next opportunity. It shouldn’t hold you back. Au contraire, the right response should be ‘come on, what’s next?’

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