How do I make the move to social entrepreneurship?

How do I make the move to social entrepreneurship?

[Editor's note: Dear Shannon is a career advice column for sustainability professionals and wannabe professionals. If you have a question for Shannon, send it to her at [email protected]. Let us know your thoughts on the column in the comments section below.]

Dear Shannon,

I have been working in a global strategy consultancy for 10 years with many of the Fortune 500 companies as clients. I have just taken voluntary redundancy as part of a restructuring program, but will get a decent package due to my tenure. I now have the time and flexibility to do what I am passionate about and I want to start my own social enterprise focused on sustainability and innovation. Do you have any advice for someone wanting to make a difference in the world through entrepreneurship?

— Phillip, New York City

Hi Phillip,

After a decade working for a big company, breaking out on your own and doing what you love is liberating, but will certainly have its hurdles. As an entrepreneur myself, I think the trade-off you make between having a social impact and not being able to pay yourself a salary sometimes can be worth it. And if you love what you do, everyday challenges will even seem fun.

Social entrepreneurs are unique in that they identify a problem and use entrepreneurial principles to organize, create and manage a venture in order to yield positive returns to both society and the balance sheet. My favorite two mantras from some of the social entrepreneurs I have coached are “to give up is not an option” and “dream big to make a big difference.”

To answer your question, I’ll break down the most important skills and traits needed for an ambitious project like this and outline some of the key steps to the first phase of starting up.

Skills needed

The skills a social entrepreneur needs are similar to those of a business entrepreneur, i.e., very robust and diverse, since you will be wearing multiple hats for at least the first phase of startup. The most important skill, however, is having a strong and communicable vision. Once you've identified the gaps in the sector and created your business model, you will need to apply other skills at a more hands-on level:

  • Commercial: Strategy, project management and business modeling.
  • IT: Web design and social media.
  • Finance: Cash management, taxes, VAT, PAYE and invoicing.
  • Legal: How to set up your business, incorporate it, understand regulations and report quarterly as required.
  • Marketing: Networking, selling your idea and engaging people emotionally through visual storytelling.
  • Leadership: Cultivating organizational culture; this skill underlies all of the above and is crucial to your long-term success. Says Peter Drucker, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

Traits needed

Underscoring the hard skills with which you'll run the business are the traits you'll use to implement them. Often confused with skills, traits are in fact an approach, or a style of delivery.

  • Solutions-based approach: Use, produce or bring about social innovation to to solve a problem.
  • Commitment: Dedication to your goals and an intense focus.
  • Balanced perspective: Nurture other aspects of your life to maintain well-being for the lifelong journey of your enterprise.
  • Passion and drive: Keep fire in your belly to implement and shape social change and stick with it during the inevitable ups and downs.
  • Willingness to learn: Be a sponge and absorb knowledge on the key areas of the business and new social issues.
  • Inner voice: Trust your instincts, listen to your heart and be true to your passion. This conviction will take you through many tough decisions.
  • Stay real and focused: Keep your project real. If you are super determined, you may be able to pull off something quite ambitious but you have to keep your feet on the ground and stay focused, too.

The initial challenges in the first year can be broken down into some simple steps, each with its own set of questions you'll need to find answers to, perhaps with the help of a coach or mentor:

Idea generation: As a social entrepreneur, you will see opportunity in the face of massive challenges and identify gaps in the sector which others may not. However, do make sure you test your business ideas before committing.

Finance and funding: Business modeling will be key and I would encourage you to find a mentor who has already set up a social venture to help guide you and perhaps sit on your board. On top of that, you'll need a strong business model to be able to compete with others doing similar businesses without the social agenda. Once you've got that model defined, never compromise on it: Your enterprise is still just that, even if it does have a social conscience.

To sell your concept to investors, you will need to find ways to bring your story to life while rooting it in hard numbers and against a solid plan. You'll need to test out a professional and compelling pitch before going to the big investors.

Accounting and legal: You will also need to hire a good accountant. For a while you may be managing the books. Consider automating your financial reporting  this can be a crucial time-saver.

Marketing and sales: As the owner of the business you will be the face of the company. You will need to establish a strong brand identity and navigate the world of social media. You will need to be able to measure the impact of your marketing efforts and do startup PR that gets coverage. Finding your initial 100 paying clients or customers will be your biggest Phase 1 challenge.

Team and recruitment: Creating an organizational culture that attracts top talent is critical to your success. You will need to know how to structure a strong employee relationship and how to make your first hire, and when. Put on your HR hat and think of innovative ways to incentivize your team and build that strong startup culture.

I wish you the best of luck turning your passion for social change into reality. Commit to it and stay strong while finding inspiring colleagues to join you on the journey. Do let me know when you launch and I’ll spread the word.

Thank you to successful social entrepreneurs Felipe Zalamea of Sumak Travel and Sustainable Pangea, Jamie Grainger-Smith of Think.Eat.Drink and Maggie De Pree of Imaginals for their personal insights and contributions to this blog.

Photo of woman in front of maze provided by Fotovika via Shutterstock