At a two-day long policy dialogue on 'Collaboration for Impact', Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, spoke about informing and influencing policy agenda, promoting the benefits of social enterprise and undertaking research to expand the social enterprise evidence base. This annual social enterprise forum in Bangladeshwas organised by British Council in collaboration with Betterstories, Dnet, Future Startup, mPower and Team Engine, and in partnership with the Access to Information (a2i) Programe of the Prime Minister’s Office, in order to develop a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for the government and other stakeholders.
How have social enterprises affected the British economy?
In statistical terms, there are over 78,000 social enterprises in the UK employing over a million people and contributing a massive 24 billion pounds to the economy. Social businesses are providing low cost housing solutions to people who are tackling homelessness, training people who are distant from the labour market, finding a whole range of opportuinities for people with disabilities and contributing increasingly to issues like international development, environmental management and climate change. They are really the innovators in showing us the solutions to tackling the challenges the UK and the world face. Social enterprises (SE) are doing some of the heavy-lifting required to heal gaps and close divides in society.
Can a flourishing social enterprise sector benefit Bangladesh?
SE play an important role in any economy at any stage of development. I think the reason why it's so relevant for emerging economies is that we’ve seen very significant levels of inequality where traditional models of development emerge – those who are at the bottom of the pyramid don’t seem to benefit from the economic growth that the country is experiencing. SE is a great way of tackling inequality and ensuring that all citizens, and all communities, can feel the benefits of development. It’s critical to note that development doesn’t drive inequality, whereas inequality drives other issues including social unrest and division. If we are going to build societies that function efficiently, create opportunities and operate in meritocratic ways, then social enterprises will play a pivotal role in creating equal opportunities across all stratas of society.
What do you think are the prospects of social enterprise in Bangladesh?
Social enterprises struggle everywhere in finding their feet --- traditionally in economies, we still value profit and financial performance over and beyond social impact. But the world is changing and increasingly, academics, economists, political leaders and business leaders too, recognise the importance of creating shared value as a sustainable way to drive business, economic growth and share prosperity across societies. Bangladesh already has some brilliant social enterprises based here so it already has a blueprint of social enterprise models and how to scale them. The future is really rich and there’s an opportunity for the government to catalyse the growth and build on the existing success of social enterprises by making sure that, when they buy and procure goods, or commission big infrastructure projects, they should do so through the lens of social impact, environmental sustainability and increasingly through things like sustainable development goals.
What can the government do to support social enterprise?
One of the things they can do is just show signs of good leadership; talking about social enterprise, recognising it, visiting it and celebrating it – to some extent, becoming ambassadors of social enterprises within the country. They are making economic impact and also contributing to society, so they deserve the recognition. Secondly, governments can buy from social enterprises or certainly encourage their big suppliers and contractors to engage, support, nurture and buy from social enterprises within their community. Thirdly, there are all sorts of policies that emerge. In the UK, we’ve got a wholesale social investment bank called Big Society Capital, the first in the world, and it is funded by money that has been sitting idle in banks for 15 years or longer – it is being repatriated and used as a low-cost and flexible investment tool that can help social enterprises scale.
Does policy dialogue like the one organised by the British Council help social enterprises?
I think the social enterprise policy dialogue is about showcasing what Bangladesh is already doing so well. That learning can be taken right across the world and for me, back to the UK. It’s also about learning, sharing with colleagues across the sub-continent and the world. Having that discussion about what’s working in different countries, sharing ideas, innovations and information about what type of social enterprises are working is really important, as is looking at different models of investment and growth, and collaboration with the private sector and government. This is a really fertile environment to share best practices and ideas.
SE is a great way of tackling inequality and ensuring that all citizens, and all communities, can feel the benefits of development
Professionally, how do you mainly engage in the social enterprise sector?
Over the years I have started and run a number of social enterprises so I can empathise with social entreprenuers about the pain and joy that said enterprises bring into one’s life. Secondly, I have engaged with governments all over the world to try and help them understand practical ways to promote the growth of social enterprises and the role that such enterprise plays in helping the government achieve their own agendas. Social enterprises are contributing to the economic growth but they are doing so in a sustainable way. In a way, that creates great social value. Sometimes, political leaders are just not aware about what social enterprise is, and how it’s contributing to society. It’s really being a cheerleader, an ambassador, an advocate – is the principle way through which I try to make a difference. But occasionally, I write, blog, talk to economists, academics and I try to come up with new ideas about how the global movement can be unified and can achieve more through scale and through better collaboration.
Does the focus on social enterprise take away from other causes or social work?
I think the focus on social enterprise complements the excellent work that has been done across the civil rights movement around the environmental lobbying and all the other aspects. Social enterprises, I think, bring all of these different agendas together. Political empowerment is enhanced by economic empowerment and social enterprises are a great tool to equipping communities with the resources they need to advocate for themselves, to campaign and also create jobs, opportunities and stability to really thrive and prosper.
How should young people go about engaging with social enterprises?
I think young people are often natural entrepreneurs and a great thing about being a social enterpreneur is, you take that spirit with you into all walks of life. So you can be a social enterpreneur in your school, you family, in a traditional job or you can start a social enterprise! The idea of starting a business and becoming a job creator rather than being an employee is liberating, it’s dynamic and you can earn so much by doing it. You can also try and work for other social enterprises, volunteer, study social enterprenuership, buy from them, invest in them – there are so many ways to engage with the whole subject matter, so youngsters have no reason to not get involved. Let me be honest with you, it’s the best thing that I’ve done in my life!
What is the top thing you have to keep in mind if you want to start your own social enterprise?
The key thing to bear in mind is to be realistic. Starting any other business is tough, it’s hard work and requires commitment. It might cost more money than you might have imagined, it might take longer than you thought. The profits come much later on in the process. My message would be, absolutely go for it and do it but be realistic about the amount of effort that it will take. Also, never underestimate the joy that it’s going to bring you. There’s nothing better than giving in this world, it enriches your soul, life, your family and friends and teaches you a lot. Don’t be afraid of failure since it goes hand in hand with entreprenuership.
What is the best way to generate the social enterprise movement in Bangladesh?
The best way to generate the movement is by spreading the word. I think people are exposed to social enterprises, it’s infectious and people get hooked on it. They understand that it is liberating to make money but also to do it in a way that empowers and nourishes society. When you combine the two, it’s addictive, brilliant and exhilarating. If people are aware that these businesses exist and the power that they have, then I think we’ll find hopefully, hundreds of thousands and eventually millions of people rushing to join this exciting and dynamic movement, which I hope, gives us hope for the future.