We’ve spent 7 months travelling by bicycle through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and India meeting countless social enterprises, NGOs, businesses, governmental bodies and entrepreneurs. Through this initiative we have developed a number of insights to report back to the social sector. This article includes some of these insights and is based upon a presentation we gave (by video) at the SESA (Social Enterprise South-East Asia) Network inaugural conference in Phnom Penh on 23rd May 2017. Watch the presentation in full here:

Social enterprise has been a focus for us, but despite recognising it as an invaluable tool for development, we’ve also noted some key issues surrounding the sector. This article firstly describes three problems, and secondly focuses on another problem that we consider to be an underutilised development opportunity. This opportunity lies in the skills gap, typically considered solely as a barrier to development. We want the skills gap to be considered as a business opportunity and an enabler for growth and development.

The Founder’s Fallacy

Being too preoccupied with founding a social enterprise and becoming a ‘social entrepreneur’ can distract from the ultimate goal: solving a social issue. This is a problem globally. The alluring status of being a heroic social entrepreneur can lead people to start an enterprise without a thorough understanding of the social problem they are hoping to tackle. Instead, by working in an existing organisation they may be able to effect social change while simultaneously developing a vital understanding of a social problem. We recommend reading Daniella Papi-Thornton’s excellent work on ‘Hero-preneurship’.

In all jobs it is possible to have a social impact. We don’t just believe that this is possible, but more than ever it is necessary for all organisations and institutions to have a social focus. This needs to be developed from within. Civil servants in any government are often in a prime position for making effective social change – they might even use the term ‘social intrepreneur’. Getting businesses to shift their focus just a couple of percent in the social direction is far easier from the inside than the outside and can instil the change societies so desperately need.

Do your research

However, if becoming a social entrepreneur is indeed right, innovation is not always necessary (often taken to mean creating a new business type in a location that’s never seen it before). Gaining inspiration and learning lessons from what has gone before can be a far more effective approach. South-East Asia has easily accessible networks, so there is no excuse not to learn from existing experts. British council, CSIP and the new SESA Network are all ready and willing to help budding entrepreneurs explore their field in neighbouring countries and see what could be recreated. Blindly replicating a business idea in a copy-cat fashion will not lead to success, but understanding potential similarities and recognising lessons learned will mean a business is far less likely to fail.

Sexy social enterprise

Another issue is the definition of ‘social enterprise’ itself. A business does not need to define itself as a social enterprise to make positive social change. In most South-East Asian countries there is no legal difference between being a conventional business and a social enterprise – it’s just a matter of branding. The fact that there is a disagreement on the exact definition of social enterprise should be leading people to understand that there are plenty of effective business models for creating change.

If an organisation is really a charity that relies on volunteers and donations, then there is no issue with it being branded as an NGO or charity. A social enterprise is still a business, which needs to generate a profit.

Skills gap as an opportunity

In every country we’ve been in, and in every industry, we’ve seen organisations facing the issue of the skills gap. Young people with formal education have extremely poor workplace skills, a serious gap in their capability. We think this problem can be tackled by employers realising that taking on such staff in fact represents a business opportunity, not a persisting frustration. We’ll come to this conclusion by describing three sequential stages of professional development:

No formal education

Training restaurants employ unskilled youth, and in return for working in the restaurant the youth receive accommodation, high quality workplace training and even formal academic education. This business model has been an effective force for social change, proven to work in tourist-friendly South-East Asia and pioneered by Friends International. There is plenty of potential for this model to be repeated in many other non-tourism based industries such as carpentry, tailoring, repair shops.

Undergoing formal education

What about those who are at university but are receiving inadequate training for their professional lives? Students are bright, enthusiastic, and a crucial group to effectively train in the skills so desperately needed in the workplace. Universities are failing their students by not providing them with workplace skills (email etiquette, Word, Excel); they should welcome training programmes with open arms. There’s a great opportunity here for business to provide the training and recruit students for future roles.

Completed formal education

Recent graduates still want to learn and professionally improve themselves – and they’d hope to do this by getting a job. Employers would love to hire pre-trained staff, but a common complaint is that they have no choice but to hire recent graduates with poor workplace skills.

Employers should recognise the skills deficiency as an opportunity. They should take on staff as ‘trainees’ rather than ‘employees’, paying them accordingly and training them with the exact skills needed for the role. The popular training restaurant model functions in a similar way – it’s a mutually beneficial exchange of a portion of salary for workplace training.

Addressing the skills gap will help society move away from the dependency on foreign funded NGOs, and will also help South-East Asian countries move away from the need for foreigners to run social enterprises, and instead develop home-grown talent.

Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the final leg of our journey in Nepal! We are currently looking to develop these insights and further findings. If you would be interested in supporting us to do so, or simply want to discuss our project, please do get in touch – it would be great to hear from you.

Joseph explains where we're going, central Thailand

Joseph explains where we’re going to some intrigued Thai people. Answer: Myanmar.