Sustainable Development

3 important lessons from 20 years of working with social entrepreneurs

Working together: an image from the social enterprise Zoona, which provides accessible financial services

Hilde Schwab
Chairperson and Co-Founder, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, World Economic Forum Geneva
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Agenda in Focus: Social Entrepreneurs

For the past two decades, well before social entrepreneurship was the mainstream concept it is today, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship has been identifying, showcasing and supporting the world’s leading social entrepreneurs. It has provided them with the platform to scale and replicate their solutions in partnership with other crucial stakeholders of the World Economic Forum.

It has been one of the greatest joys of my life to expedite and amplify the work of social entrepreneurs in the Schwab Foundation’s global community. It’s hard to believe this year is the Schwab Foundation’s 20th anniversary – I feel like our work has only just begun.

On our 20th anniversary, I am proud to announce the Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2018 awardees: 12 leaders at the helm of 11 organizations working in some of the most challenging places on the planet.

As we celebrate their achievements, and call on decision-makers, funders and the media to support their efforts, here are some of the insights I’ve gleaned from working with social entrepreneurs in the past 20 years.

1. They need international legitimacy and visibility

Despite all the buzz now surrounding the sector, most social entrepreneurs work in relative obscurity. In a crowded media landscape, it’s hard to break through the noise and get their message heard. Profiling social entrepreneurs in World Economic Forum plenary sessions with heads of state and other high-profile leaders is the kind of visibility that generates media attention and often leads to new grant funders, investors or government partners.

2. Despite the sector’s growing cache, they remain beleaguered by unhelpful misconceptions

Social entrepreneurs combine the mission, dedication and compassion to serve low-income or marginalized people with business principles and the best techniques from the private sector. But that does not mean they’re heroes or martyrs nor are they running highly profitable businesses or “making money off the back of the poor”. Such outdated and ideological thinking should be relegated to the history books as we seek collaborative, scalable solutions to address the most complex social and environmental problems of our age.

3. They need a community of kindred spirits

The Schwab Foundation’s social entrepreneurs love participating in Davos and the peer-to-peer access it gives them to top business and political leaders. But what they really cherish most is the opportunity to spend time with fellow social entrepreneurs, who form part of a tight-knit community. They celebrate each other’s achievements, learn from each other’s successes and setbacks, and help each other recover from devastating failures. In our community, they feel heard, seen, and understood – because, of course, no one understands their highs and lows as well as another social entrepreneur.

I have always said that social entrepreneurs are my role models. Collectively they have transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world, providing education, opportunity, livelihoods and dignity. The Schwab Foundation’s 2018 Social Entrepreneur of the Year award winners are no exception and to all of them I say: “Congratulations and welcome to your tribe.”

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