What it takes to be a youth social entrepreneur

Social entrepreneurs share advice and wisdom for individuals who wants to make a difference on their own terms

By: Muneer Huda, Staff Writer

You’re young, enthusiastic and full of good ideas backed by strong ideals. You see problems around you that need fixing, people who need help, inefficiencies and chinks in our social systems that need to be addressed, and you know without a doubt that if you had the right opportunity, you could make a real difference.

You are a Youth Social Entrepreneur.

But good ideas and the invincibility of youth will only get you so far. Like any other business venture, starting a social enterprise is an immense challenge, one requiring clear vision, tactical ingenuity and lots of guts. I had the privilege and pleasure of interviewing two Canadian social entrepreneurs possessing these very qualities, having proven themselves in their respective social causes.

John Mighton is founder of JUMP Math, an organization that lives by the principle that anyone can be good at math, regardless of ‘natural abilities’. Al Etmanski is a proponent of the Registered Disability Savings Plan, the first of its kind in the world, director of Social innovation Generation (SiG), and president and co-founder of the Planned Lifetime Advocacy Network (PLAN), an organization helping people with disabilities. Both Al and John are Fellow Ashoka members of Canada.  Between them they had many gems to offer in the form of advice and anecdotes that would be useful to any would-be entrepreneur thinking of starting a social venture.

It starts with the right idea

Your idea is the product you’re pitching, the service you’re selling, the solution to the problem you have identified. Knowing your idea works and works well is crucial. It is often the principle on which a social enterprise is built and it is the thing potential investors will take a stick to to measure your worth.

“Your idea is the most valuable thing you have,” John says, stating the importance of dedicating resources early into testing whether your idea works and achieves the desired impact.

JUMP Math currently reaches out to over 85,000 students in over 1000 schools in Canada and has trained close to 11,000 teachers. It has come a ways since John first started tutoring kids in his apartment. But even now, more than a decade later, most of JUMP’s resources still go into Research & Development of its program for continuous improvement. “Perfect whatever innovation you have,” says John. “When you have solid evidence, rigorous evidence, that the [idea] works, doors open everywhere.”

But perfecting the solution also means understanding the best way to approach it.

Al started as an advocate for people living with disabilities, butting heads with the government for funding and support programs. After eight years of hard lobbying, Al realized the limitations of government funded institutions and programs. The bureaucratic source of the funds restricted the help provided to only basic provisions, but Al believed people with disabilities should have the same choices and opportunities as other members of the community.  That’s when he decided to create the social enterprise, PLAN. Through PLAN, Al found ways to address the problem that he never could have by simply relying on government funding.

But as Al donned the hat of the social entrepreneur he realized he had another, larger beast to contend with:  capital.

Look outside the box

‘Money’ seems to echo fearfully through every social entrepreneur’s mind, whether established or just starting up. How am I going to get money to sustain operations? To pay for the things I need to do my work? To pay the people working with me?

A crucial difference between a business and social enterprise is that a social enterprise does not measure its success by profits. Social enterprises have a different bottom line: social impact. Nonetheless, if these organizations want to be successful and don’t want to rely on the kindness of others, in the form of government grants and charity, they need to find a way to generate flow.

“A personal challenge was, I had no idea how to get money other than from [the] government.” When Al started PLAN, he had decided to stop seeking financial support from the government. But where else could he go for money?

Al’s predicament forced him to think outside the box by reconceptualising the problem in his head. Al soon realized he was in the business of financial planning for families who had loved ones living with disabilities. He started asking questions like, who else was in the business of giving money? Who else has a vested interest in people living with disabilities in the community? Al came up with answers that he had previously never considered: banks, credit unions, insurance agents and lawyers.

PLAN formed partnerships with these institutions by connecting them with a unique niche market: people living with disabilities. For example, VanCity is a credit union based in Vancouver which already had people with disabilities among its members. By partnering with PLAN, VanCity reinforced existing member loyalty and satisfaction, and had more business come in as a result. As PLAN connected its members with different institutions, it generated cash flow by offering training to lawyers and financial planners on how best to address the needs of people with disabilities.

The importance of collaboration

Partnering with other established organizations did something else for PLAN besides simply generating money.  It increased its profile and credibility, which is crucial for a young Social Enterprise.

JUMP Math partnered with the University of Toronto and The Hospital for Sick Children to conduct a randomized control study. JUMP students achieved twice the rate of progress than that of the control group. This was a breakthrough moment for JUMP.  But more than providing the numbers to statistically back JUMP’s tutoring program, the collaboration associated JUMP with research giants such as SickKids and the University of Toronto, cementing its reputation in a way that would been challenging otherwise.

Al also emphasizes the point by saying, “It is really important to pause and look around and see who else is in the field, even your potential competitors, but more importantly, [your] potential collaborators. That’s a very critical challenge for social entrepreneurs.”

Every entrepreneur wants to have their idea taken seriously. People are skeptical about new ideas and innovations, and defending their idea is just one of the many hurdles social entrepreneurs have to face. Collaboration with organizations sharing similar interests is one effective way of lending credibility to the idea.

The face of youth social entrepreneurship

To contrast John and Al’s experience with someone a little newer to the playing field – to see whether greener eyes had a different perspective to offer impassioned youths wanting to make a positive impact – Philip Chen gave his point of view.

Philip Chen co-founded Social Spark while still at the University of Toronto, a non profit that helps cultivate the social entrepreneurial spirit in individuals. Social Spark gave birth to Njaro, a company providing socially sustainable clothing to the developed world from Tanzania, and Spuro, a fundraising platform that brings out the competitive spirit in organizations by having them compete with each other.

Philip is currently enrolled in the TheNext36, a rigorous eight month program that spits out Canada’s next entrepreneurial leaders.  Through TheNext36 Philip co-founded Seamless Mobile Health, an app aimed at reducing the medical costs of patient readmission to hospital emergency rooms. At 22, Philip already has an impressive resume as a youth social entrepreneur and has a lot to offer his peers.

“People should always be tackling a problem they are passionate about,” says Philip. “[Social entrepreneurs] have to get in as early as possible to determine if the solution is working and whether they should pin it or not. Talk to users, to people, make sure it makes sense.” He echoes John’s view of investing early in the solution to make sure it has wings of steel rather than paper.

Philip also emphasizes the importance of having a mentor figure around. “Having someone as a soundboard to give perspective is very important. […] there are high and lows in creating a company.  [Find] someone you respect, someone who understands the industry and is be able to say, ‘maybe you should go in this direction,’ or ‘you’re doing great.’” Al also repeats the sentiment, “find one or two people you trust and respect, know that the person will tell you the truth, encourage you, but also give honest feedback.” Building a social enterprise from the bottom-up can be a rewarding task, but it can also be extremely demanding and lonesome. Having the right people around you can help you break through the toughest of times.

Start now.

A generational gap doesn’t seem to have changed much for the prospective Social Entrepreneur. It was tough when PLAN and JUMP Math first took root over a decade ago, and it’s still tough now. What you need to be successful hasn’t changed either. Passion still has to be your fuel, your ideas must survive the saw mill before being put out, cool-headed creativity is what will let you slip past barriers, and having good people to support you through the journey is still important.

But what has changed, as Al points out, is that “there is something called ‘social enterprise’ now.” The concept of social enterprises is now taught in schools and universities, and as more people start social ventures, there is an increasing awareness about them.  There are organizations out there dedicated to helping social entrepreneurs and enterprises take off, like Social Spark and Social Finance.

With the abundance of resources and social media tools available to the tech-savvy youth, now is a better time than any to become a Social Entrepreneur.  So if you’re young, enthusiastic and full of good ideas backed by strong ideals…start now.

“There are many problems out there worth tackling,” says Philip Chen.

Pick one.

Muneer Huda writes out of Waterloo, Ontario. He enjoys all kinds of writing, but has a special love for speculative fiction. He aspires to support himself solely through his writing one day. http://muneerhuda.wordpress.com/

Image courtesy of flickr, by preppedandpolished

Show more