What does it take to create and maintain happy, functional networks of social entrepreneurs and enterprises? You know, groups of amazing changemakers who feel that supporting each other through grassroots organising is just as important as the impact they’re aiming to achieve in the world.
In my current role as QSEC’s chair the task of creating something meaningful and useful for time-poor members has often kept me awake at night. So it was with overwhelming joy that this year’s program at SEWF2019 included a session on networks.
The mini-plenary titled “Social Enterprise Networks – connecting entrepreneurs, supporting leaders and driving a global movement” was chaired by none other than the fearless and loving chair of SENVIC, Cinnamon Evans, and included Atayam Simineh (Social Enterprise Ethiopia), Peter Oloo (Social Enterprise Society of Kenya), and Lalith Welamedage (Lanka Ventures).
Here are my takeaways from the session, and from spending quality time with my peers for over a week in Ethiopia.
Kenya, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka were represented on the mini plenary, and it became clear that for these new networks in developing countries huge barriers had to be overcome to gain traction and support.
However, while the drivers for success may have been different, comparing their desired outcomes with developed countries revealed that we all want very similar outcomes when communicating our value proposition to members:
There’s also a broad consensus that ecosystem building needs investment. It concerned me that Kubrit from SE Ethiopia openly dismissed the idea that his government would ever fund their network.
If we’re really wanting broad system change in the face of rising inequity and the climate emergency, then we need philanthropy, governments and impact investors to step up and provide the infrastructure for entrepreneurs to flourish. Investors are yet to realise fully that this critical piece creates in real terms a huge multiplier effect in impact and financial returns.
In Queensland, we’ve been very lucky to have support from Brisbane City Council in accelerator programs, state government funding for QSEC, and ecosystem building financial support from the English Family Foundation. These have been critical pieces of development in our local context.
The good news is that there’s no rules to starting a network of peers. You just find a fellow friendly SE and organise a gathering. Even a successful blogger in Kenya co-founded a social enterprise network. Ethiopia’s SEN started with a group of invited entrepreneurs to last year’s SEWF, who were initially unknown to each other.
But let’s not beat around the bush. Initiators are usually A-types with big personalities or a driven agenda (for good of course!), but this can disaffect the quiet ones who want deeper connection and peer support. My favourite example is South Australia’s approach. Sharon Zivkovic does all the facilitating and connecting, but never plays a front-facing role – she finds the passionate ones and creates a platform for their voices to be heard.
If we’re going to change the world together, we need to make the tent big enough and methods of collaborating participatory (ie less reliance on heropreneurs, more collective action) to invite broad acceptance.
During the conference, I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time with Bianca Stawiarski from Warida Wholistic Wellness, and everything she said about Indigenous business reflected the same conversations I’ve been having with Gaala Watson from Bimbi Love. It’s usually 100 per cent the case that Indigenous-owned businesses by default benefit their own community.
They don’t need special clauses in their constitutions, a “definition” of social enterprise, or other legal models. They do it because it’s in their DNA to do so. This insight has made me reflect on my own loved ones and local community, and to what extent my success is benefiting those around me.
Yes, we are all at various stages in our journey as networks, but that’s no excuse not to reach out to our international brothers, sisters and non-binary friends. Atayam was super excited about the prospect of starting a global network, and later a few of my peers started conspiring to find ways to level the playing field for those in less fortunate political and economic contexts. Imagine a global network of networks all meeting face to face once a year as a parallel event to SEWF!
Using technology to connect is great and can save on carbon emissions. But I think most of my colleagues would agree that making the time to connect face to face is really important to build and maintain the movement. I felt this strongly at this year’s Unconference QSEC held on the Sunshine Coast, and it was confirmed again at SEWF19.
Spending a lot of time with each other, relationship building, being vulnerable, admitting defeat and celebrating success – in a nutshell, building solidarity, creates deep trust networks and a richness in our relationships. Having fun together is just as important as working on our movement and enterprises.
So there you have it: universal desires, investment, lean start up, Indigenous knowledges, global reach, and face-to-face connection.
Being immersed in the forum last week, along with evening social events put us in a special little bubble (called the UNECA in Addis Ababa). It allowed pockets of time for spontaneous conversations with each other, and to commiserate over upset tummies. Gastro aside, I’m not sure if it was the communal sharing of a delicious plate of injera (and bottles of St George beer) that helped, but I felt a much deeper connection to my peers, and a real sense of solidarity and excitement for our collective future. And lots of new friends – you can never have enough new friends!
This article first appeared on Social Change Central.
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