7 things I learned about social enterprise in Malaysia

by Jobbatical August 11, 2016

Lessons from a life-changing fellowship

by Reisy Abramof

A social enterprise fellowship with Scope Group took Reisy Abramof from Brazil to Malaysia earlier in the year, where she tackled urban poverty with a group of passionate fellows. In this guest post, she describes the experience in detail.

Just a few days ago I finished a social enterprise incubation project in Malaysia.

The goal: To develop a solution to eradicate urban poverty and homelessness in Kuala Lumpur.

The challenge: 4 months, 6 people, RM 10,000 (USD 2500), and one solution.

Social businesses are on the agenda. Young people are hungry to change the world and put all of their talent into service projects that generate a positive impact on society: projects in favor of the environment, education, health, innovation, public services … the list of possibilities is endless!

It’s been 5 years since I’ve been completely in love with social entrepreneurship. As an International Business student, I had the opportunity to do an internship with an NGO that provided support for low-income Latino families. In spite of having a super important role in its community, I noticed how the organization fully depended on external funds which could impact its stability from one day to another. For this reason, I started to become very interested in alternative social impact models that match businesses opportunities with the improvement of society, thus promising the sustainability of their operations and impact.

But many of you must be wondering: What is a social business?

It is a business that is born with the aim of solving a social problem.

Social businesses provide an innovative and sustainable solution to a socio-economic problem. Unlike an NGO, a social business is economically sustainable and promises a more prosperous long-run. All profit is reinvested into the business in order to expand its impact.

During my most recent experience as a social entrepreneur in Malaysia, my wonderful team and I created a social business, inclue, that helps people living on the streets to reintegrate into society through simple jobs and personal support. It was a truly amazing experience! So I decided to make a list of my main learnings:

1. Understanding before designing

It is extremely important to use a Human-Centered (HC) approach when designing social impact projects. The HC approach is a process that starts with the people for whom we are designing and ends with new solutions that are tailored to suit their needs.

The first phase of the Human-Centric approach is finding inspiration. At this stage we build a deep empathy with the people we want to impact and we immerse ourselves in their lives, deeply understanding their needs, which leads to what many call brainstorming or ideas generation.

To better understand our beneficiaries’ situation, during our first week in Kuala Lumpur, my team and I decided to approach their reality and spend a lot of time on the streets to the point of becoming practically homeless. We spent nights talking to people and understanding their lifestyles, reasons, problems and dreams. This phase was very important before we started designing possible solutions.

Collaboratively building prototypes, using an open dialogue and validating each step with beneficiaries for feedback helped us build a model that actually creates value.

2. “Keep it Lean”

I remember the first day that I met my team. A doctor from Malaysia, a super master in communication and storytelling from Mexico, a computer geek from Hungary and a process designer from Denmark. Each came from different parts of the world and from different backgrounds but we all had something in common: we were there to build something that really moved us. It was with all of this energy that we not only built an incredible team but also were able to manage our resources very efficiently.

The inclue team!

Keep it lean. The idea behind the term is that small businesses must be efficient, agile and not a waste. The entire budget of the organization functions like a muscle to power the business forward and to avoid the “fat”, or the type of expenses that do not accelerate growth.

This is also a smart way of thinking for social impact organizations to adopt, as it encourages them to focus on strategic investments that maximize their impact.

3. The importance of measuring impact

The main objective of a social business is to impact lives. It is not enough simply to have good intentions. As social entrepreneurs, it is our responsibility to communicate how we are achieving our goals and what results are being achieved. A social business must be able to detail the number of impacted lives for every “dollar” generated.

The main difficulties faced by entrepreneurs when measuring impact are: lack of information, methodological or operational barriers for data gathering and lack of governance in verifying the authenticity of the data provided.

Nowadays, we have several methodologies and metrics for impact measurement and evaluation of social outcomes. Of the best known is the Social Return on Investment (SROI). However, if a social enterprise is in a very early stage, as it was our case in Malaysia, it is better to establish a simple methodology for impact measurement that allows us to evaluate qualitatively and quantitatively the outputs and outcomes of our actions.

In our experience with inclue, to have a strict control of our indicators helped us not only to demonstrate our results more efficiently but also to gain traction much faster.

4. The key to overcoming uncertainty

The day I was offered this opportunity in Malaysia I had only 3 weeks to quit my job in Brazil and get on a plane to the other side of the world! I remember what I felt that day: UNCERTAINTY in every sense of the word! But I did not doubt for even a second. I quit my job, packed two suitcases and left.

Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle; you live with constant uncertainty that you can transform into energy to keep motivating you every day. You do not know under what circumstances or where you’ll be tomorrow, but you must be willing to take the opportunities when they come your way.

During my nomadic journey I’ve learned that uncertainty is overcome with self-confidence. There are two dimensions of uncertainty: one that depends on external elements and another that is based on self-esteem. The second one gives us the base to overcome external agents trying to deceive us with one of our most dangerous enemies: fear.

The key to self-esteem is to believe that you CAN, and have a strong belief in your potential.

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” — Buddha

5. Be ready to fail

Normally, failure is perceived as negative and as a fact that is obviously not desired. Let’s be honest: no one likes to fail! But in many cases failing can be the basis for future success. It is often said that “we learn from mistakes,” right?

I think this photo perfectly defines the path of an entrepreneur.

While working to build inclue, there was one thing that helped us overcome barriers in moments of frustration, and it was by reminding ourselves about the main objective of the project: to change people’s lives. By understanding that we are creating something meaningful automatically forced us to find solutions and alternatives for anything we had “failed” to do.

6. In the social impact world, copyright is the right to copy

There are certainly many social entrepreneurs in the world trying to design solutions to the same problem as the one you are trying to solve. By deep diving into existing models to better understand which are already being used, what are the success stories, challenges and impact of each, you can reduce barriers and save some time and money.

Surround yourself with other entrepreneurs. Besides providing you with tools, it also gives you inspiration. I am a believer that the social entrepreneurship ecosystem will only strengthen if we all unite, support and exchange experiences. It is all about learning together.

7. Be ready to be surprised!

My goal was to change their lives. What I did not expect was how much they would change mine.

The day I said goodbye to all of the people who benefited from inclue, despite having a wrinkled heart, I felt extremely happy about how we had impacted their lives.

I still remember my first week on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. I have to admit I felt a little scared at first, but after realizing the reality of the streets, that fear was transforming into an inexplicable desire to give everything I had to help those people. And so it was. For 4 months, days and nights, my team and I gave it our all. I was surprised not only by all of the energy that we put into the project but by what we built as a team. This was certainly what led us to the success of this project.

In just 4 months, inclue employed 55 people, gained 5 clients and pledged continuing operations in the long term.

I feel fortunate to have been part of something that added so much value. But I feel even more fortunate for all of the things that I learned. Those people who I was intended to help, taught me a lot about other ways of seeing life, about the systems we have created as a society, about solidarity, freedom … and the list can be endless.

To follow Reisy’s journey, keep reading her stories on Nomad Lab and follow her on instagram!

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