Pitching social entrepreneurship in the Den

Earlier this week I was invited to London to spend an hour talking to the twenty-five “Join Our Core” semi-finalists, a social entrepreneurship competition set up through a collaboration between Ben & Jerry’s, Ashoka UK and VSO. It’s vital that we not only continue to encourage and inspire young people into the field, but that we also put support structures in place to enable them to build on – and take – their ideas forward. This event did both.

The location could not have been better – the home of the BBC’s “Dragons Den” – a TV series where entrepreneurs (not usually the social variety) pitch business ideas to five dragons (aka investors) in the hope of walking out with cash in exchange for equity in their fledgling business. Often a daunting scene, it was made less intimidating with the addition of a Ben & Jerry’s banner, more casual seating and a splattering of cow bean bags, plastic cows, bails of hay and, of course, free ice cream.

By the time I arrived in the early afternoon most of the entrepreneurs had pitched their ideas but I did manage to catch the last half-dozen or so. The Den was out of bounds so I joined the other entrepreneurs, and Ashoka and Ben & Jerry’s staff, in one of the other rooms where we all watched intently on a big screen.

It was a real honour to be given the chance to spend time with the entrepreneurs and talk to them about their business ideas. The range of ideas and projects may have been wide and varied, but the maturity, passion and commitment that each showed in their work bound them all. Anyone who reads my blog will know how much emphasis I place on helping young people see through their ideas and dreams, and how important I believe it is that we help them reach their potential. Three years ago, in “Enabling the inspiration generation“, I wrote:

If we can help anyone on their journey, then we should. Whether that be giving advice or a positive critique on an idea, helping raise awareness through blog posts, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions to other projects and people with the same interests, or offering to be a future soundboard as their ideas grow and develop. These are all things I didn’t have when I started out, and using them productively now that I do is one of the biggest contributions I believe I can – and should – make to the future growth of our discipline. Our legacy shouldn’t be measured in the projects or tools we create, but in the people we serve and inspire

My talk, which at an hour is about twice as long as I usually get, focused on a range of topics from reluctant innovation to grassroots innovation, my background, the humble beginnings (and current impact) of FrontlineSMS, things which I feel define me and my work, and lessons I’ve learnt along the way. These included:

  1. Don’t be in a hurry. Grow your organisation on your own terms.
  2. Don’t assume you need money to grow. Do what you can before you reach out to external funders.
  3. Volunteers and Interns may not be the silver bullet to your human resource issues.
  4. Pursue and maximise every opportunity to promote your work.
  5. Remember that your website, for most people, is the primary window to you and your idea.
  6. Know when to say “no”. Manage expectations.
  7. Avoid being dragged down by the politics of the industry you’re in. Save your energy for more important things.
  8. Learn to do what you can’t afford to pay other people to do.
  9. Be open with the values that drive you.
  10. Collaborate if it’s in the best interests of solving your problem, even if it’s not in your best interests.
  11. Make full use of your networks, and remember that the benefits of being in them may not always be immediate.
  12. Remember the bigger picture.

During the early part of the evening the fifteen finalists were announced. In reality, there were no losers – all of the projects and ideas were worthy in their own right, and as I pointed out at the start of my talk, many entrepreneurs I know would have given their right arm to be at “Join Our Core”. By simply taking their ideas and turning them into something tangible, they had already elevated themselves into the top few percent.

The fifteen finalists will be off to Uganda in August to take part in the final challenge. The projects that made it through are:

Archipelago. One of the largest communities of young entrepreneurs in Western Europe. They help young people create sophisticated businesses through events, think tanks and crowd sourced funding initiatives.

Biochar. A product created from burning waste materials such as manure and wood in the absence of oxygen in a process called pyrolysis. The outcome is a charcoal substance but unlike regular charcoal biochar has been proven to enhance soil condition, crop yield and it sequesters carbon for up to 1,000 years making it carbon negative.

Elevation Networks. An award winning youth employment charity that seeks to develop the leadership potential of young people to increase their employability.

Elvis & Kresse. Creators of stunning life-style accessories by re-engineering seemingly useless wastes. The raw material for their principal range is genuine de-commissioned British fire brigade hoses.

FairMail. A social enterprise producing fair-trade greeting cards. The pictures on the cards are taken by at-risk teenagers in Peru, India (and soon Morocco).

FoodCycle. Building communities by combining volunteers, surplus food and a spare kitchen space to create nutritious meals for people at risk from food poverty.

Hackney Pirates. Transforming the who, where and what of learning. They give kids intensive 1-1 support from volunteers, to work on projects that matter, in an unconventional learning environment.

!SYOU. Introducing the new way of walking. Unique sneakers produced in collaboration with DAC-listed nations.

Mattecentrum. Tutors around 70.000 young people in math every month – for free.

ONEforONE. A social enterprise in The Netherlands that sells water bottles, health insurances and green energy on a ‘buy one give one’-basis.

Play31. Using the unifying power of football to bring together people who have been torn apart by war.

Retoy. Creating experiences and places where children learn about the environment, sustainable consumption and children’s rights in a joyful way through toys and play.

Rubies in the Rubble. Making the tastiest chutney and the fruitiest jam in the nicest possible way at the same time as addressing social issues of unemployment, social exclusion and waste.

Ruby Cup. Improving menstrual hygiene and raising the quality of life of women and girls worldwide.

SuperHoney. Putting beehives into schools to teach kids about bees, the environment and food, and providing much-needed homes for millions of British bees.

You can find out more on each of these projects, and the competition itself, on the “Join Our Core” website, or follow on Twitter via the #JoinOurCore hashtag.

32 thoughts on “Pitching social entrepreneurship in the Den

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  24. kiwanja says:

    @Brent – Sorry, I’m not sure what the precise plans are. I think it’s going to be a ‘closed’ event but there should be a contact link on the Join Our Core site, so look for that and maybe send the organisers a question? Best of luck.

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