Social Enterprises as an Avenue to Solve Challenges

Rajesh Nair

A decade ago ‘social businesses’ were considered an oxymoron indicating that the two words which together form the concept represent seemingly divergent ideas when viewed from an economic angle. Several leading social entrepreneurs, however, have proved over the years that it is not true and social businesses thrive when they are looked at as businesses and not sheer philanthropy. Prof. Muhammad Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, has been widely recognised as the father of ‘microcredit’ business ecosystem which he had originally developed in Bangladesh under the aegis of Grameen Bank and helped spread across the world. As the pioneer of the microcredit movement, his basic tenet was to ‘use business principles to solve social issues’. His compelling thought is that ‘social problems’ are not for ‘others’ to solve and every individual should do their bit to address those issues. Prof. Yunus mooted several thought-provoking ideas during a lecture series on social businesses hosted by ESAF Small Finance Bank recently.

Let us remind ourselves that we, as elements of a large societal ecosystem are impacted by the changes that happen around us, says Rajesh Nair

A disturbing sociological shift we see around us is the ever-growing divide between the ‘haves and the have nots’. While we don’t bother to even think of anything beyond ourselves and the immediate circle of family and friends, it is ideal to remind ourselves that we are all elements of a large societal ecosystem we live in and are positively and negatively impacted by the changes that happen around us. But there are people who believe that ‘we are more connected to everyone right now’ and ‘social media has brought us closer than ever before’. Well, the jury is fairly clear on this one – we are connected and perhaps more so than ever but each of these connections remains as ‘faceless’ calls and texts on your smart phone.

So does this in any way portray us as a selfish society? It is definitely not that pessimistic! Intuitively, all of us know that it is important to help someone who requires assistance. It is generally believed that there is lack of avenues and opportunities for us to step out of our personal domains. So how does one go about solving it? The beginning is to focus not just on selfishness but also on selflessness!

For starters, there are several organisations like Rotary and Lions Clubs and many more affiliated international, national and regional organisations. All of them have structures to garner support of likeminded people and gather forces to do social good. Polio eradication drive under the aegis of Rotary International is a classic case in this regard. These societies/clubs provide a platform for all likeminded people to contribute to the common good. However, what often happens is that these groups become more of an extended business of members or career networking platform and their very idea of formation dissipates with time.

An interesting idea here is to involve students in social entrepreneurship projects in schools and colleges. Entrepreneurship is not just starting a venture but a way of thinking and a way of life. It is the constant quest to do better, bring about improvements and to develop a keenness to make a difference. It is worrisome to hear educated and talented young people say that they couldn’t find employment while they would get to see a plethora of problems and the business opportunities they provide by just opening their eyes. Prof. Yunus says that we are fortunate that our forefathers did not wait to be given jobs but went about foraging, hunting and feeding themselves and their families.

Another very interesting concept proposed by him is the phases of life. According to Prof. Yunus, we should divide our lives into two phases; the first phase is to create wealth and happiness for us and our dear ones and then to create wealth and happiness for others. He says making money will make you happy but helping someone to make money will make you ‘extremely happy’. We are biologically engineered to be selfish but we also need to be consciously selfless. That psyche will take us to a world of three zeros – Zero poverty, Zero unemployment and Zero carbon emission!

(The author is Associate Partner – Markets, Kerala & Tamil Nadu, EY)