Sebastien Marot is the founder of Friends-International — a social enterprise turning marginalized urban children and youth into productive citizens. In this interview, Sebastian highlights the role social enterprises have in educating other key players, including businesses and NGOs, about new ways of tackling complex challenges in order to maximise their impact. An edited transcript plus more details of Friends-International’s work can be found below.
We run four main programs. The first one, called Friends’ Programs, provides basic services to these children under the bridges, in the slums, prisons, and drugs dens where they live, to make sure they survive. The second part is rebuilding their futures. For the younger ones it’s all about bringing them back to school and keeping them in school for as long as possible. For the older ones it’s all about vocational training and support to access employment.
Our services have grown from Cambodia where we first started to Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, and now Myanmar. Every year we work with over 30,000 of these [marginalized urban youth] and we aim to reach 150,000 young people in three years.
Friends-International has grown quite rapidly – geographically but also in terms of staff. We went from a handful of people to 500 plus staff. And that created major changes in how we needed to operate. To manage a large organization and remain locally relevant and embedded at the same time, we created local structures that are self-sufficient. Every country office is run by a local program director who oversees [his or her] own team, which allows for stronger local ownership and greater flexibility for the teams and for the work. All those [country] teams are then connected by an international coordination team, and that’s how we expand.
The scale of the challenge
There are half a billion marginalized children and youth worldwide, and the numbers keep increasing. We work with 35,000, but this number is still very small compared to the issue. It’s a drop in the ocean. So it’s extremely frustrating. We know that working alone is not enough, and we can have more impact if we work with others. So we built the CYTI Alliance, where we work with partner NGOs to coordinate activities in the field, learn from each other, and have a stronger voice with governments and donors. Currently we have 51 partners [in the CYTI Alliance], all the way to Africa and Central America.
The international exchanges build everyone’s excitement and everyone’s skills, and we learn very fast. A very basic example is dealing with gangs, which we’re starting to have in Southeast Asia but Central America has dealt with them for many years now. Through the network, we learn extremely fast what they’ve done and what the lessons were, and how we can bring those lessons back to Southeast Asia. That gains time, energy, and knowledge, and it’s the only way to move fast enough to react to this very important issue.
Social enterprise and sustainability
Friends-International runs all of our projects with a budget of $6 million. Initially, we were very donor dependent. The problem with donors is that their priorities change, and it’s very difficult have the continuity that you need to provide ongoing services over the long term. So I decided to start social businesses as a way to generate money. We have turned all our youth vocational training centers into businesses. That includes restaurants, beauty salons, garage, shops, et cetera.
Turning these activities into social businesses allows for a few things. First, it’s the best vocational training possible because it’s hands-on and gives real-life training to young people, and they’re immediately highly employable. Second, it allows us to be in tune with the market. If we don’t make good money, it either means that there is no market out there and therefore there’s no placement, so we need to change what we’re doing – or we’re not doing good business, therefore we’re not doing a good training, and we need to revise what we’re doing. So being in tune with the market allows us to constantly be the best we can be.
Finally, it allows for sustainability in terms of income. If we’re good in business, we cover our costs. If we’re very good in business, we make a profit. And that profit is then used to support the others services we provide that are not money-generating. So we’re building a sustainable business model and generate about 38% of our budget in earned income through our social businesses.
I believe that social entrepreneurs have a role to play in the bigger picture, which is to influence businesses. We are trying to work with big companies to create a new model of how to do business – one that combines a strong output with a strong monetary output. You can make money and have a social impact at the same time. For example, we are working with an international hotel chain to develop a vocational training hotel where they would manage the business side and we would work with them on the training side. That kind of collaboration is extremely powerful because it’s also highly replicable. Working with the corporate sector to build different kinds of models is the only way we can create change.
Social Entrepreneurs: Innovators for Impact
This post is part of a major series of interviews with leading social entrepreneurs associated with the Schwab Foundation. For further insights from the world of social enterprise see the following posts:
Author: Sebastien Marot is founder of Friends-International. You can read more about his organisation’s work in Training and employing youth, looking to the future and Ensuring child-safe tourism in Asia.
Image: A Friends-International field worker with street children.