Social entrepreneurs are mission-based businesses rather than charities. Picture: ISTOCK
Social entrepreneurs are mission-based businesses rather than charities. Picture: ISTOCK

It is impossible to lead in a fourth industrial revolution world by applying a business-as-usual blueprint. Digital leadership is built on teamwork, collaboration, empowerment and innovation, and there is no better training ground for this style of leadership than through social entrepreneurship.

Earlier this year Apoorve Dubey, the founder of India-based software company Kreyon Systems, contributed a piece to the World Economic Forum in which he extolled the virtues of digital leadership. “The role of digital leaders will be prominent as they will need to steer, design and build systems that create an inclusive future for everyone,” he wrote.

This approach accords with the view espoused by McKinsey & Company a year earlier when the firm’s Martin Hirt outlined the need for future leaders to build ecosystems and be open to cross-functional products, services and markets. You only have to consider the increasing number of merger talks between leading automotive companies around the world, or the fact that BMW is partnering with Mercedes-Benz on the creation of next-generation self-driving vehicles and Jaguar Land Rover on electric cars, to appreciate how radically business is changing.

These shifts are pervasive and extend beyond co-operation in key sectors like the automotive and telecommunications, and they will require leaders with different mindsets, with unique interpersonal skills, with a new vision of humanity’s future and, of course, the evolution of business.

Over the past few years the Entrepreneurship Development Academy (EDA) at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) has observed the development of a new brand of leader: social entrepreneurs who straddle the worlds of business, innovation, advocacy and social impact. These individuals exemplify many of the traits required in effective future leaders, such as dynamism, accountability, creativity and tenacity. They are financially focused, solution-orientated advocates motivated to create sustainable platforms. They don’t pigeonhole themselves into roles or sectors; for them collaboration is a daily reality.

Many of these insights come from seminal research the EDA has conducted in this space, including the 2018 “Social Enterprises in SA: Discovering a Vibrant Sector” report, the first major study of its kind on social enterprises. The EDA also runs Gibs’s widely regarded social entrepreneurship programme (SEP), which attracts about 60 people a year who are keen to shake themselves out of their comfort zone and learn how to develop sustainable organisations. Interestingly, most of the delegates on the SEP are graduates already and have successful careers, but they are often looking for something different or have recently become involved in some kind of organisation with a social mission. Some are just motivated to add meaning and purpose. 

What they learn is that engagement with stakeholders is a central part of leadership in this space, be it with government, academia, civil society or maybe even mainstream business. This is what sets these leaders apart. Collaboration at this level requires the ability to step back and take criticism. Students of social entrepreneurship learn this fast, and they quickly come to appreciate that peer-to-peer learning — and not competition — is essential in this space. As a result, we see the development of egoless leaders who are open to feedback and learning from others. This, in itself, is inspiring.

Yet, despite fostering individuals who seem to have all the traits required of progressive future leaders, social entrepreneurship is still extremely small. Globally about 4% of the population gets involved in social entrepreneurship and in SA it’s less than that.

There is, however, a growing realisation that social entrepreneurship has a central role to play in a country as economically and socially divided as SA. We are seeing this demand playing out in some of the programmes the EDA runs for corporate clients like SAB and Diageo, both of whom are at the forefront of supporting social entrepreneurs, particularly in the dynamic technology space. But beyond these niche interventions, there is a staggering — and surprising — lack of focus on this unique brand of entrepreneurship from both government and business.

Regrettably, the support mechanisms for social entrepreneurship in SA are sorely lacking. We barely teach entrepreneurship at school level, let alone social entrepreneurship, so most young South Africans are unaware of this as a potential career avenue. And, in a country where there are more than 30,000 nonprofit organisations battling for funding and donor dollars, we continue to ignore a more sustainable approach that has the potential to address myriad social issues through innovation and partnerships.

By comparison, in the UK support has advanced to the extent that they have 32 Social Impact Bonds to finance delivery and dilute the risks associated with social investments. SA has started playing around with these ideas, but we lack the necessary traction. Commercial financial institutions continue to be risk-averse, and even more so when it comes to anything with a social purpose which they often view through the lens of welfare and not as sustainable social initiatives. It will take time and effort as a country to change this mindset, recognise the potential impact and support social entrepreneurs. When this happens, we will also see the growth of this brand of future-focused leadership.

Without doubt it takes a special type of person to take on an environment where funding is scarce, problems are mounting and red tape is often plentiful and unreasonable. But such leaders are emerging and, as they find their rhythm, I believe business has much to learn from their tenacity, vision and creativity.

Here I am reminded of role models like Dr Dulcy Rakumakoe, whose U-Care walk-in medical centre at Park Station, Johannesburg, was formed out of a desire to bridge the gap between inaccessible private health care and an overburdened public system. Rakumakoe’s remarkable work and vision was recently highlighted in an inspiring book by Dr Kerrin Myres and Gus Silber: The Disruptors 2: How Social Entrepreneurs Lead and Manage Disruption. So too was the impact being made by microbiologist Bandile Dlabantu, who runs Khepri Biosciences, which addresses the environmental problem of abattoir waste by using insects to break down waste and turn it into animal feed and compost.

In Cape Town Sizwe Nzima, the founder of Iyeza Health, was inspired to make it easier for poor, old, disabled or infirm people to obtain medicines from public health facilities. His solution involved starting a bicycle delivery service to collect chronic medications and deliver them to people’s homes. In 2017 Nzima and his business partner, Siraaj Adams, won the Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year title at the Sanlam-sponsored Entrepreneur of the Year competition, and earlier this year opened Khayelitsha’s first independent medical dispensary.

Countless other wonderful examples exist, with environmental and green solutions becoming increasingly prevalent, alongside key social pain-points such as education and health care.

Because they are dealing with people’s lives and livelihoods, leaders in this space are deeply conscious of measuring their own impact. Like their commercial business counterparts, these social entrepreneurs also pay scrupulous attention to the bottom line — donors and funders would demand nothing less — but impact is central to their work. Similarly, as advocates for change they must remain both agile and self-aware. For these leaders, innovation and adaptability are sore to their make-up — traits that are highly valued in a world facing entrenched social problems and in dire need of fresh leadership approaches.

Social entrepreneurship, which represents a radically different way of thinking, is producing young leaders with collaborative, socially minded and dynamic leadership qualities; just what we need to take SA forward. But, if we are to replicate these characteristics at scale to equip future leaders to take on the new world, then the entire system needs to step up to support the advancement of social entrepreneurship and those who are effecting change through combining the dual objectives of purpose and profit.

• Simrie is director of the Entrepreneurship Development Academy at Gibs.