Rise of the social entrepreneur by Nick Freer

Last Thursday night saw 300 CEOs from across Scotland’s business, university, government and not-for-profit sectors sleep out rough overnight in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh to raise funds for Social Bite who are using the funds raised to build a village for the homeless west of the city.  

I’m doing my bit and offering free PR consultancy in return for donations on my recently launched Just Giving page and the whole exercise has got me to thinking about social enterprises and whether we are in the process of building something in Scotland that could put our nation on the world stage - a bit like our tech ecosystem has done in recent times.  

A few calls and emails to people more in the know than me has thrown up an interesting takeaway - we may have already have made a serious name for ourselves when it comes to social enterprise.  As a PR guy, I like telling a story and I’ve got a few of those before coming on to some of the numbers.

While Josh Littlejohn and his team deserve a load of credit for their self-stated mission to eliminate homelessness in our country, the conversation is not complete without reference to another individual who has been at the vanguard when it comes to tackling homelessness.  As well as bringing the Big Issue to Scotland, Homeless World Cup founder Mel Young so impressed one of the world’s richest men that the individual in question flew him out to Mexico on a charm offensive aimed at Young and team taking the Homeless World Cup to his country.

The story, corroborated by several sources, saw Mexican magnate Carlos Slim’s security staff picking Young up at the airport, bypassing customs and driving him to a private dinner hosted by Slim at one of his palatial homes just outside sprawling Mexico City.  When Young arrived, he was nothing short of shocked to see Kofi Annan and Hollywood director, James Cameron sitting around the table.  He was even more surprised to learn that Slim had lined the collective up as part of his plan to persuade the Homeless World Cup to come to his Homelessness-stricken country of birth.    

Mel Young is not one for fanfare or self-promotion but in a sign that our social entrepreneurs are making a name for themselves in global terms, this year Young was presented with the Jackie Robinson Humanitarian Award - an award won in recent years by luminaries of the sporting world with established foundations like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Cristiano Ronaldo.  

What is beginning to emerge from my whistle stop poll of the great and the good is that one of the common defining characteristics of social entrepreneurs is the passion they bring to their roles.  It’s a passion that spreads within their organisation and to the support network of advisers around them.  People want to commit time and resource for these leaders, even when remuneration is negligible to non-existent.  Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR seems an outdated term, implying box-ticking, disclosure and the backend notes to a company’s annual report.  

Sometimes the passion of the social entrepreneur is fired by personal experience - think of Blackcircles.com founder, Mike Welch, adopted and fostered as a 6-month old.  What not a lot of people know is that part of the deal that saw Michelin acquire the online tyre retailer involved the French industrial giant committing funds to The Welch Trust, set up by Welch earlier this year to support children and their families who are facing acute needs and critical illness.  Welch is a good example of what might be termed a traditional entrepreneur turned social entrepreneur.   

At Euan’s Guide, a social enterprise HQ-ed in Leith that is best described as a kind of TripAdvisor for disabled people, Euan McDonald and his sister Kiki are growing internationally in a not dissimilar way to how a tech company scales.  Passion doesn't by half describe the motivation behind the McDonald duo and their social enterprise startup, the genesis of which was Euan developing Motor Neurone Disease in 2003.  And for those who know Kiki, it was no surprise when she left her high-flying post as an investment analyst with Standard Life Investments to launch the business with Euan.

When the EICC hired Euan’s Guide to provide training across its team ahead of the Rehabilitation Congress, the world’s number one conference that centres on advocacy for empowerment and inclusion of disabled people across the globe, coming to Edinburgh in October, the venue’s CEO, Marshall Dallas, had an eye on economic advantage as well as social responsibility per se - Rehabilitation Congress contributed over £2 million to the local economy and what is described as the ‘purple pound’, the spending potential of disabled people, is no longer overlooked by businesses with their finger on the pulse.  Having hosted Social Bite’s Scottish Business Awards for three years straight, Dallas is one of the first names on the team sheet for the sleep out and the EICC itself has a mission to become one of the most socially responsible conference centres on the planet.  

Talking to Anderson Strathern managing partner, Murray McCall, brings another interesting point to the fore.  Fellow Social Bite ‘sleeper-outer’ McCall says that the pro bono work his legal firm do for Social Bite brings other advantages including to help build Anderson Strathern’s credentials as the employer of choice in the Scottish Legal Sector.  In a similar vein, at Scotland’s largest creative agency, Whitespace, MD Iain Valentine sees similar value in his design firm working with clients like Mary’s Meals - with young recruits keen to work with organisations that are making real, social impact.  

If you want to meet someone who embodies social enterprise in every sense then make your way over to tech incubator, CodeBase, on a Thursday evening to meet Freda O’Byrne, founder of Prewired who teach coding to kids and adults.  Another little known story is around how FTSE-100 business outsourcer, Capita plc, gifted scores of used desktop computers to Freda and the team; a great example of large corporates taking time out to support social enterprises.  

One of Scotland’s most unheralded but successful corporate stories involves Dryden Aqua, a company specialising in marine biology and water treatment and with activities in every corner of he globe, founded by Howard Dryden when he left the University of Edinburgh in 1980.  Even less well known is the Dryden-led initiative ‘Clean Aqua for Everyone’, or ‘Cafe’, which supports the creation of social enterprises in developing countries to produce sustainable drinking water and alleviate the billion plus lives that are lost every year to water borne diseases.  

In their latest report, Social Enterprise Scotland puts our number of social enterprises at over 5,000 with over 200 new additions every year.  The same report says they collectively provide well over 100,000 jobs and contribute over £1 billion to the economy.  What seems sure is that this base is going to grow considerably over the next few years.  For one, I definitely want to be part of it.