Social enterprises: building businesses that are socially engaged

A panel of changemakers at the DBS Asian Insights conference discuss the significance and role of social entrepreneurs in creating businesses with purpose.

Young people are more keen on starting their own business than working for other companies. And they would want their business to not just make money, but to change the world for the better.

This trend explains why millennials, or people born in the 1980s, are making social enterprises their business models. A social enterprise is a revenue generating business that advances social and environmental causes.

The rise of the social enterprise was a trend highlighted by changemakers at a session earlier this month on the next generation of philanthropists and changemakers. 

The panel discussion was part of this year’s DBS Bank’s Asian Insights conference held at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore to examine key themes driving the Asia of tomorrow. The panel comprised of speakers from social enterprises, academia and non-profit organisations. 

Melissa Kwee, who is the chief of Singapore’s National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre, noted that younger entrepreneurs are more interested in creating businesses that create social impact.

One of the reasons for the shift is technology. 

Ami Doshi, founder of Milaap USA, highlighted that technological platforms such as online giving helps the next generation be aware of and create social change.

Milaap USA is a non-profit organisation based out of the United States that raises grants and donations to support social causes such as poverty alleviation and education, and works in partnership with Milaap social ventures, India.

In India, Milaap is a crowdfunding platform that raises funds from the public to give out as affordable micro-loans to the working poor in India for education, enterprise development, amongst others.

Speaking about the surge in online giving - donating money for social causes - over the last six to seven years, Doshi shared that it is popular with millennials because it is “accountable, transparent and immediate through mobile payments”.

Millennials want to be involved not only in giving but in the how and why of the giving, she added.

Moreover, entrepreneurship is a cool option for young people now. They are more likely than their parents to start their own companies than get a job in a company.

Patsian Low, head of DBS Foundation, DBS Bank, pointed out that among developed countries, 54 per cent of  millennials have started or want to start their own business. Out of this, half of them are already self-employed.

Young people taking over family businesses also want to make their firms more socially responsible, shared the panelists. 

Annie Koh, academic director of the Business Families Institute at the Singapore Management University, added that the next generation in Asian family businesses are leveraging on new business models, social networks and technology.

Training and a support network to impart skillsets to more companies is important for any industry to function.

Frank Phuan, co-founder and director, Sunseap Group

But the challenge is convincing the older generation that this is going to work, she added.

An example of a next-generation social entrepreneur is Frank Phuan. He started as the marketing director for his family business, Sunseap Enterprises, which manufactured solar panels. 

But due to differences in opinions about running a business with his father and a declining manufacturing industry for solar products in Singapore, he decided to strike out on his own and become a service provider of solar energy.

As such, he founded Sunseap Leasing, with his friend Lawrence Wu in 2011. Instead of selling products such as solar panels, the company sells the energy produced by the system.

Phuan was able to leverage on the initial family business training and his interest to find “a better and more sustainable way to deliver clean and affordable energy”.

DBS’ Low said that finding a team that can grow a business to the next level and is aligned to its social mission is harder than finding staff for purely commercial enterprises.

A way for the private and social sectors to work together, she says, is for “social enterprises to become part of the value chains of larger companies and bring innovations in products and services that could help both to enhance their business value”.

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