What inspires social entrepreneurs?
Inspiration is often thought of as something that happens instantaneously. It’s the light bulb moment when an idea suddenly takes hold. It’s being ‘struck’ by genius. It’s the apple hitting Einstein on his head, setting off a chain of thoughts that changed the course of physics forever.
We often wait for inspiration to strike and get frustrated when we need it most and it doesn’t show up. We’ve all been in a work meeting or school project discussion where we’ve been told ‘no idea is a bad idea’ but then even we can’t even think of a terrible idea to suggest. Or been looking for inspiration in less high-stakes scenarios, like trying to think of the perfect birthday present for your friend when your mind goes blank as you try to recall their interests and passions to funnel into the perfect present.
The reason this kind of sudden inspiration is so infuriating is because it’s largely a myth. Good ideas do occasionally appear to come out of nowhere but once they’ve been interrogated, flaws start to emerge and what started out as a revolutionary idea eventually turns out to be just a bit unrealistic.
Amazing ideas are the bedrock of social entrepreneurship. Spotting a social, cultural or economic problem is the first (and arguably easiest) part of starting a social enterprise. The harder part is developing a solution that is sustainable, achievable and gets the social entrepreneur out of bed every morning. Here, we’ll look at some of the ways that social entrepreneurs are inspired and what keeps them inspired throughout their journey.
A personal connection
Often social entrepreneurs are inspired by a cause or an issue they have a personal connection to. This could be someone who grew up in a family where they struggled to afford food when they were growing up. They may have first-hand experience of gaps in the market for organisations needed to support families struggling to access affordable food and may decide to set-up a social enterprise that distributes surplus food to families or launch a community cookery school that teaches parents how to cook low-cost, affordable meals for their family.
One of our 2022 accelerator programme finalists, Marie-Claire Kuja started Kuja Ecopads; a social enterprise that helps fight period poverty in Cameroon. Marie-Claire found that when she started her period, she hadn’t been given any information about how to use sanitary products, so ended up using makeshift materials which were detrimental to her health. This experience inspired her to set up a social enterprise that educates young girls about their period and supplies eco-friendly sanitary pads.
There’s been more focus over the past few years on founder’s and creator’s lived experience being an asset when they talk about or start working in a particular area. This means that lived experience is a quality to value, alongside professional experience, talent and tenacity. That’s not to say that, for example, someone who didn’t grow up in poverty shouldn’t start an organisation that supports those living below the poverty line.
However, it does mean they need to research the area they want to create a social enterprise in, speak to people who will use the service and ensure that they respond sensitively and thoughtfully to feedback. When someone doesn’t have lived experience in an area, their inspiration may instead come from realising a gap in support through research and professional experience.
Spotting a need
All successful business ideas meet a need. Uber meets a need for cheap and convenient taxi services. Amazon meets a need for quick shopping. Bumble meets a need for wanting to easily meet a potential partner.
The same applies to social enterprises, where the social entrepreneur starting them will identify a need that they think they can address. This could be a need to solve a cultural issue such as increasing diversity within a specific industry or an economic issue like providing pathways to further education and employment for people who have served a prison sentence. Rather than the inspiration being solely heart-led, the inspiration will come from being able to see a gap that the social entrepreneur can see that no one else has filled.
We can never predict the future. Sometimes ideas for social enterprises are formed by a reaction to a specific event or cultural change that no one could previously have foreseen. For example, social entrepreneurs have been inspired to set up businesses to help those impacted by hurricanes and their aftermaths. Some have set up organisations that respond to reports that show children are struggling to access schooling in certain areas.
It's easy to watch the news and become dismayed by everything happening in the world. No one can solve all the world’s problems, but often what inspires social entrepreneurs is wanting to respond to a devastating event in a way that they think can have a lasting impact.
It’s easy to have an idea that we think will change the world. We’ve all had excitable conversations with friends or family where we plan out a dream business. We may get as far as doing some market research, registering the domain name and planning out the first year of operation but when it actually comes to putting the steps in place to launch it, enthusiasm wains.
Successful social entrepreneurs have to constantly stay inspired by their goals. Whether they stay motivated through seeing their progress as their social enterprise starts to take shape, or find inspiration in hearing from the people they’re helping with their work, staying engaged with their overall mission is paramount. Running a social enterprise is tough. Funding might be tight, working late nights and weekends start to become standard and sacrificing time with loved ones ends up becoming normal. If someone stays inspired by their mission, they’ll be better equipped to overcome any obstacles that come their way.
While we can appreciate inspiration when it hits us, we shouldn’t focus on this as being the only way we can create ideas that will change the world. Let’s instead, learn to appreciate the often-overlooked inspiration that forms over time. The ideas that take shape over weeks, months and years of developing a passion and an interest in finding a way of helping to change the world for the better.
While the inspiration that strikes overnight may make for a good story, it’s the quiet consistency of daily inspiration that we should treasure and try to cultivate in the social entrepreneurs of the future.