The “me, me, me” generation has come of age, and Pokemon Go is all the rage.
It’s the age of instant gratification, the fear of missing out, and much ado about nothing. How do we find time to pause and think when we are constantly fed with fragmented information and fatigued with having to grapple with multiple devices, endless messages and disruptions? Has the time arrived for social enterprises?
We have time for social media, but do we have time for social consciousness?
Like a pendulum, we are swung from one extreme to the other by disruptions. Equilibrium is elusive. So is peace of mind. So is Utopia.
When you imagine Utopia, what do you see?
Utopia, by definition, is an imagined world that is perfect but “does not exist.” To find Utopia, therefore, is somewhat of a misnomer, because something that doesn’t exist can never be found — except, of course, in one’s imagination.
As an entrepreneur, I see Utopia as a world where all companies on earth are social enterprises dedicated to the mission of providing solutions to social issues:
• Social change is not just a fashionable word, but is here for good; should entrepreneurship be inherently social?
• Entrepreneurship drives social change, where every entrepreneur wants to do good, and by default thinks about how their start ups can make a positive impact both socially and environmentally;
• Leaders must believe in purpose beyond profits, stakeholder above shareholder return, going from profit to not-for-profit;
• Who wants to fill that “middle space” that government is typically neither able nor willing to take care of, and ‘for profit’ companies are not interested in?
Of course, there are more questions than answers, as social change itself can be intangible. How do you measure the outcome of social good? Who gets to define problems in the first place? As entrepreneurs, who and what can we hold ourselves accountable for?
The social enterprise movement gives us a glimmer of hope. A social enterprise, by definition, is “an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being.” In other words, social enterprises strive to maximize social good, alongside profits, for internal and external stakeholders.
In the West, social enterprises are a living, breathing proof that we don’t have to argue with Capitalism to make the world a better place for everyone. However, in Asia social enterprises have yet to fully gain traction, with many leaders paying nothing more but lip service to an otherwise fashionable, yet vague, concept. Asian companies see that creating employment is their social responsibility. It is – but we can do so much more.
I see that the challenge of creating a world where every company is committed to do social good lies in (1) how to empower new entrepreneurs to buy into the idea that all start-ups should be social enterprises; (2) how to encourage corporate CEOs today to transform their businesses to address real, critical social needs; and (3) how to support Charities to find means and ways to identify source of revenues and not rely solely on funds from cash donations, as well as to convince financial investors to allocate most, if not all, money to social enterprises with lower returns, i.e. “slow capital.”
During the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, every one of our colleagues in Chengdu volunteered to travel to vital earthquake zones to facilitate the distribution of much needed emergency goods donated by our corporate clients. In light of this volunteer work, I realized that this “corporate giving” movement should continue.
I then set up an NGO in Hong Kong called Giving Hand (www.givinghand.net) and actively promoted it to our clients to donate their unwanted and excess merchandise, such as shoes, mattresses, computers, pens, books, among others, and we would arrange the logistics to get these goods to the appropriate charities in China. As charities in China are nimble and often not legally registered due to local circumstances, many donors are neither comfortable nor able to make donations. Hence, we did the necessary research and followed up, so donors would feel confident that their goods go to the people that needed them.
At its peak, Giving Hand helped to facilitate the distribution of more than US$2 Million worth of goods, and it gave me the hope of finding a more sustainable revenue model beyond my own financial contributions. However, after years of exploring with charities and corporate donors to cover the logistics and required costs associated with the large movement of goods, I failed to find a sustainable model of operation. I also explored other models, such as helping the disabled to find jobs, but again I failed to identify sustainable revenue models.
After exploring various options, I have now reoriented Giving Hand to focus on funding start ups that have potential to become a social enterprise. In 2014, through Giving Hand, I helped fund and advise the start up of a nonprofit organization, Teach4HK (www.tfhk.org), which was founded by a group of committed, and very young, leaders in Hong Kong with the mission of enlisting outstanding university students to serve in local primary schools with underprivileged students through a one-year teaching fellowship. The goal is to enable young leaders to develop a heart for business and give underprivileged students the chance to access better education.
Arnold Chan, one of the founders, took a gap year from Harvard Business School (HBS) to start TFHK and rejoined after he finally graduated from HBS. In two years, TFHK has partnered with 3 schools with underprivileged students and recruited 6 fellows to start its first fellowship program in the 2015-16 academic year. TFHK is now exploring a viable revenue model as the schools have started to find ways to pay for the teaching fellows.
TFHK is an on-going and inspiring story that gives me hope to continue supporting entrepreneurs to start up a social enterprise. It is a testament that not everything that counts can be counted. It is not how much profit companies make that matter; it is how they make the profit. As an entrepreneur, a good place to start making something count is to find creative means in which to solve the many unresolved problems in that middle space ignored by Government and businesses. How entrepreneurs can empower the middle – to do good and make good – is the disruption we need.
I do believe that Utopia, just like the truth, lies not in the extreme left, nor the extreme right, but somewhere in the middle. I also believe that if you can imagine it, then you can make it happen.
The journey of creating Utopia is as energizing as achieving it.
When you imagine Utopia, what do you see?
Probably not Pokemon.
Lots of Love,