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  • Supporting social entrepreneurs: Unplugged learnings

    Louise Johnsson Zea
    Louise Johnsson Zea
    Our Senior Program Manager Louise Johnsson Zea reflects on the key learnings from her daily work with the social entrepreneurs in our portfolio. She delves into their most pressing needs, remarkable strengths, common pitfalls, and promising opportunities, as well as the human side of the social entrepreneurship journey.

    Louise Johnsson Zea runs our Incubator program in Sweden, designing and delivering consultations and workshops to social entrepreneurs in different stages of development. She has over 15 years of experience in project and program management with focus on entrepreneurship, sustainability and innovation, and working with entrepreneurs in Sweden and the USA.


    In my work, I talk to our social entrepreneurs every week. We check in regularly to figure out how to navigate the, sometimes fierce, oceans of entrepreneurship, where I act a bit as a sounding board, a helping hand, a listening ear, a leg up. But at times also as that annoyance that comes along and rocks the boat asking those questions that may just turn the whole thing upside down. Say what?

    We have spent many hours together. I met their kids – they met my cat, they have told me how frustrated they are at times, I have told them they are my superstars and to hang in there – and together we have paved the, not so straight, road forward. Or actually. They do all the work while I, with the entire organization behind me, rally them on. Though the entrepreneurs have a lot in common their needs will, of course, differ depending on their development stage, type of business or organization and who they are as people as well as a million other things. In my position as a Senior Program Manager, giving tools and feedback is probably the smallest part of my job while assuring, questioning, connecting, cheering and pushing is the greater. 

    Below are just a few of the many things we have learned while working together:


    Social what?

    Many of our entrepreneurs don’t know that they are social entrepreneurs. What they know is that ”I just couldn’t not do something” and then the label we use to categorize them becomes, at least to them, not very important. Maybe they are right. Their impact is the same. Still, regardless of the name, more people could benefit from knowing what a social entrepreneur is but perhaps those people aren't social entrepreneurs. Understanding their “why” is one of the most important things you can do – they look out for and care for the most vulnerable, those often forgotten about, those stuck between the structural cracks in our societies and give a voice to those who don’t have one.

    Why we don’t always deliver

    In our very efficient- and result-oriented societies, it may feel like we always have to deliver and every check-in has to result in some sort of outcome, some plan, some little step forward. But not so.

    Sometimes just coming up for air, stopping for 60 minutes or being asked how you are doing is exactly what we need. The result is a no-result, which is at times the greatest result – and what you need to eventually push on forward.

    Louise Johnsson Zea, Senior Program Manager

    And soon enough we’ll be back to look at impact measurements, discuss ways to ensure branding permeates all of their organizations or businesess, analyze what kind of strategy is required to become financially sustainable and what it takes to scale and have a greater impact. 



    Corporate ladders fall flat

    While many social entrepreneurs struggle with financial sustainability and getting their business models right I would say their approach to working cultures and staff is much further ahead than many traditional companies. Typically social entrepreneurs are not bound by hierarchies or limitations of what is ”their job”. Everything is their job if it brings the change they want for the people they are working with. By flattening out the hierarchical structures, trusting their employees with decision-making and removing pecking orders their mission becomes every employee’s mission, and they enjoy not only buy-in from their staff but also honest feedback and great care for the organization. In that sense, they are building organizations for the future that are sustainable and healthy for employees and the people they support.


    Being a connector

    The drive for entrepreneurs is in the fulfillment of the idea, the burning passion to change things, and the enthusiasm to put your solution into action. Yet sometimes it may seem like no one else is fighting that battle.

    There are endless decisions to be taken, actions to be implemented – not seldom with a fair amount of uncertainty, which may be scary. But I often find that fear is not so much a concern - loneliness is.

    Louise Johnsson Zea, Senior Program Manager

    There is a need for someone who will cheer on when things are tough and celebrate when they are awesome – and more than anything – someone who can relate. There are thumbs up in the LinkedIn flow after a new podcast or TV appearance but most of us never see the struggle to nail just the right grant, seal the deal for a much-needed sale, or the frustration of not knowing how to pull through when things are rough. Helping to find the tribe is a big part of our work, connecting to networks and like-minded people to join forces and enter collaborations. And often, more importantly, bridging to someone who knows ”what it is like”'.


    Organizational octopuses burning for change 


    At times I think that our entrepreneurs balance a fine line between just a tad crazy, insanely courageous and delivering amazing and important change for children and youth, starting businesses or organizations on the sentiment ”I just couldn’t take it” or ”I have to act – there is no other way”. Or as one of the entrepreneurs said: ”If we can’t pass through the door we’ll go for the window, if that is closed we’ll hit the basement”. That is some guts. And while there is unquestionably a call, a drive and a vision that becomes the foundation for change there isn’t always a plan, a strategy, written goals and milestones and financial measurements that might have brought them to their vision a lot sooner. Instead, some of them end up operating like a Jack of all trades treating their organizations like a roaming wildfire they are trying to tame. Everyone has a friend who will build a website for free, do their bookkeeping for a coffee, or craft a marketing campaign for a penny.

    But just like the focus needs to be on “social” it also needs to be on “enterprise”. Zoom out. Develop a plan. Build the team. Talk to your customers. Do your calculations. Don’t fall in love with your solution. Refine.

    Louise Johnsson Zea, Senior Program Manager

    At the same time, when you work with people who are on fire you have to sometimes ask them to just stop, to just slow down or take a day off. Just so they will be there tomorrow as well.

    The un-marketing strategy

    Sometimes entrepreneurs are so involved in solving the problems for their beneficiaries they leave their solutions to sell themselves, which unfortunately very rarely happens. There are many people who simply don’t care that you are offering the greatest product or service on the planet and it doesn’t matter if you are a for-profit or not-for-profit you still need to sell the results of your idea, your concept and your solution. And to do that we need to know what is important to paying customers, whether they understand the offer and are interested in buying it - if it actually solves their problems.


    Tell your customers the outcomes of what you do and tell them why you do it - or the end result may be a lot of resources spent on something that is amazing to the entrepreneur but never makes it very far out the door.


    The measuring business

    If a social enterprise measures its impact it has a quality seal proving that the solution works (given that it does), which helps tremendously with sales (among many things).
    If an enterprise measures its financial situation and performance it will be better prepared to talk with investors, it will better understand what is going on financially and where things may have to change. This then, not surprisingly, helps tremendously with financial sustainability. Finance supports impact and impact supports financing. In other words - putting in the effort to measure - both impact and finance - comes with some excellent benefits. Pretty tremendous, I’d say.

    Our Incubator program in Sweden is now open for application to people with ideas that make life better for children and young people, but who need help and support to move forward to make an even bigger difference. A place in the Incubator provides access to support, advice, training, networks and is a seal of quality.

    Learn more and apply until 30/09 2023 at: sweden.reachforchange.org