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Youth Social Entrepreneurship - Some learnings for success

Guest post by Youth Co:Lab Singapore

Social entrepreneurship and social enterprise are terms that have been evolving in meaning for the last few decades. Although business and enterprise are as old as commerce, bringing a social mission to the forefront of a profit making entity is still a very new idea and one that is yet to gain global normalization.


Closer to home, in Singapore, a recent study by RaiSE reveals that from 2010 to 2016 there has been a 52 percent increase in public awareness regarding social enterprise i.e. people are getting more familiar with the concept and the idea of it. For the purpose of alignment on this topic, let’s agree on the following characteristics of a social enterprise as laid out by Social Enterprise UK:

  • It is a business with a clear social or environmental mission that is set out in its governing documents.

  • Majority of the enterprise’s income (over 50 percent) is derived from sale of goods or services.

  • As a business, at least half of the profits or surpluses are reinvested towards the social purpose.

  • There is an inherent transparency about how all operations and the social impact is created.

Another recent study done by the British Council in collaboration with RaiSE in Singapore shows that of the 146 social enterprises studied, 40 percent were youth-led. Given that Asia and the Pacific (APAC) is home to 55 percent of the world’s youth population with over 660 million youth, it is not surprising that the rate of social entrepreneurship among youth is incredibly high in the region. Despite the huge uptake, young social entrepreneurs are generally hindered by 1. A lack of business experience and connections to build and scale their enterprise, 2. A scarcity of role models, mentors, and champions in their close networks to draw from, and 3. Difficulties with finding funding to create impact at scale, which is mostly attributed to lack of expertise and network.



To address some of these and other challenges and to empower youth to create impact at scale, Youth Co:Lab was co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation. The core mission is to establish a common agenda for countries in the APAC region to empower and invest in youth, so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Since inception, Youth Co:Lab has been implemented in 28 countries across APAC with the Singapore programme being kicked off in 2019.


For the last year, alongside the support programmes, the Youth Co:Lab Singapore team has been speaking to and sharing conversations with youth social entrepreneurs as well as ecosystem enablers through the Youth Social Entrepreneurship (YSE) series blogs. The idea is to create a repository of first-hand knowledge on what it takes to build a successful social enterprise. Some of the key learnings and advice for youth on their entrepreneurial journey, from across the ten interviews are captured here.



#1 Begin with the core problem - There is no substitute to understanding the problem you are trying to solve and how it impacts your audience / beneficiaries. Our founders and enablers alike agree that one needs to spend as much time as it takes to get this understanding right. One can do this by reading and observing what is already out there and constantly researching and taking feedback from your own pilot / beta customers. Once the pain point has been identified and there is a very real problem that you are solving, the solution - however big or small - will have a greater chance of being a successful one.


“There needs to be humility while entering the problem space not only to understand the problem in itself but also the people it affects” - Ms. Seow Hui Hong, Former Programme Director, BlueChili.

#2 Start small but think BIG (and forward) - As any entrepreneur will share, it is almost impossible to get it right the first time. You have to test and trial and create many iterations of the solutions before you come to the right product-market fit. For many entrepreneurs, this means first creating a prototype, having a smaller user base, trialing and then rolling out.


But to achieve scaled impact, one has to have a vision for the future and think big on the impact. For example, one of the founders of Ambisense, a social start up that is creating a sound detection app for the deaf community knew from the start that their app could also be useful for the growing elderly population as many of them suffer from hearing loss. Knowing your growth plan helps persist in the long term.



#3 Know your market - APAC as a region has over 55 percent of the world’s youth population which translates to over 660 million young men and women of age 18-24 years. A recent study published by the British Council on social enterprises estimates the presence of anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million social enterprises in the APAC region. By 2040 APAC is expected to account for 40 percent of the world’s total consumption and 50 percent of the global GDP[1].


APAC is a robust opportunity market, however, there is also huge diversity of local culture as one moves from one country to another within the vast APAC region. It is hence important for young founders to first understand their own markets thoroughly before thinking of any expansion. Pick your home market, build scale and credibility and then expand.



#4 Get comfortable with discomfort - Across all of our conversations in the YSE series, this was one common piece of advice. Getting out of your comfort zone, meeting people outside your circle, exploring issues that seem uncomfortable to confront, going against societal expectations and norms, and continuing to plough through something even if it takes a long time are all very discomforting aspects of building a sustained social enterprise. But it is this zeal of staying with the discomfort that is usually rewarded with growth and success.


“Be gutsy, forward and charismatic, because learning how to push for what you want is a good way to be memorable and persuasive.” - Dr. Dalal AlGhawas, Program Director, Big Idea Ventures.

#5 Network - Connections are key - Almost anyone who has built something of scale or is on that journey can share how none of it is possible without help from others. The accelerators we spoke to during this series - Big Idea Ventures, BlueChili, Accelerating Asia and even for us at Youth Co:Lab – all identified our networks as one of the biggest assets we provide to our startups.


Especially for the young social entrepreneurs, who usually lack access to networks, having access to this ecosystem of supporters is invaluable. The network helps provide mentors, coaches, business partners, funding, prospective customers, allies, and role models too. Having the right connections becomes key to long term success.


As we continue to converse and document these conversations from stakeholders and entrepreneurs on the ground, we hope to share more learnings and perspectives that can help aspiring and new young social entrepreneurs to move along their impact journey.



---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab aims to establish a common agenda for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.


[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/asia-pacific/asias-future-is-now

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