Putting the "social" in social enterprise.
by Emmelyn Wu
Over the last two years I have been lucky enough to not only lead a student organisation committed to social impact, but also to oversee the operations of a new social enterprise making a difference in my home city. Essentially, our project seeks to build an empathetic society that fosters human connection, in which the stigma of homelessness is overcome, and empowers artists who are homeless to share their stories and experiences through art.
When we first started out, the project involved resume-writing and job skills workshops for members of the homeless community; however, we were quick to discover that the transactional, clinic-like interactions that occurred were not working to empower anyone. After changing tack and setting out on a mission to “empower through expression”, we soon realised how much of a difference human connection can make in the lives of others, and how important it is in the world of social enterprise.
Theoretically, a social enterprise generally exists where the commercial and volunteer sectors intersect, and aim to balance their profit-generating activities with those that achieve social goals. This usually comes in the form of material or financial support, such as providing educational resources to disadvantaged communities, or employing the “one-for-one” model with shoes, clothing, or other essential items. But - can we really call a project a social enterprise if it doesn’t really cover the “social” aspect? This “social” aspect is what differentiates the enterprise from others, its defining feature; if there is no meaningful connection between the giver of support and its recipient, how is it really “different”?
As a disclaimer, I’m not saying that material and financial assistance devoid of relationship is bad. If we want to create a change in the world, any step towards that is great - every bit helps! However, if we want to maximise the power and support of our social enterprises, our project has taught me that human connection must not be overlooked - in fact, our project thrives on it.
For the launch of our project, we were able to throw a launch gala at our university’s business school, which involved displaying more than fifty pieces of artwork by the homeless artists we work with. We’d invited all twelve of the artists along, and it’s hard to describe the feelings on both sides, with our artists having their talents and stories celebrated and being able to connect with their supporters, while we saw the potential impact our project would bring.
I remember one artist, Anne, was incredibly nervous about attending and displaying her art; her current situation and the pervading stigma of homelessness undermined her self-confidence, and she feared no-one would appreciate her work. Hearing her later describing the event as “one of the best nights of her life”, having sold all her pieces, is a moment that, for both Anne and our team, would have been impossible without us first facilitating a connection and building a relationship with one another. To this day, our weekly visits to our artists’ art sessions, shared conversations, and relationships that we have with each other continue to strengthen the impact our business brings, and make us more invested in our cause than ever before. Moving forward, we will continue to ensure that human connection, a sharing of stories and experiences, and relationship building remain a core focus of what our business is about - to build an empathetic society, you need to work to understand those different to you; and you might realise that you both are not so different after all.
The Asia-Pacific region holds a great deal of potential for the next generation of social entrepreneurs; however, for a youth-led enterprise to work, we need to mobilise not just our heads and hands, but also our hearts. If we run projects simply with our heads, how will we make real change? Even though the projects we run are fundamentally enterprises, in order for them to survive, we need to make sure that we don’t lose the “social” aspect - to ensure that we facilitate and foster human connection in the process. If there is distance between the giver of help and its recipient, the essence of determination, compassion, and desire to give back that kindled the decision to start the enterprise in the first place is lost, and the “donation” becomes transactional. And this connection should not be limited to the giver and recipient of the social enterprise’s support, but also within the enterprise’s team.
By practicing compassionate leadership with elements of empathy, understanding, and motivation, we can ensure that we care for our own team and help them to realise their own potential. If we want our businesses both survive and thrive, to have lasting impact and create an empathetic society, human connection is key.