Social enterprise is popping up in startup competitions around the developed world, but tech-savvy social entrepreneurs from developing countries are scoring wins and turning heads as well.
Techies will be excited to learn about Google’s recently launched Global Impact Challenge, which is sending $3 million to nonprofit tech startups in the UK with the best ideas to change the world. Across the Atlantic, Harvard Business School’s newly-revamped “New Venture Challenge” doles out awards of up to $50,000 for its social enterprise track. Increasingly, however, social enterprises are raking in the winnings at competitions in the developing world, often knocking aside competition from profit-maximizing ventures.
In Latin America, Colombian Sustainable Agriculture Solutions made the 2012 winners list for Intel’s Desafío Intel, a startup competition linking Latino/a entrepreneurs with Silicon Valley expertise. SAS uses nanotechnology to produce a fertilizer that is 40 percent more efficient, cheaper and less damaging to the environment. Leading the way in Asia, The Chinese University of Hong Kong has been running a social enterprise challenge since 2007, connecting hundreds of would-be social entrepreneurs from all around Asia with incubators and potential investors. Globally, many star social enterprises have gotten their start through the Global Social Venture Competition, including d.light Design and Next Drop.
But social entrepreneurs in the Middle East and India may stand the most to gain from these competitions. In Palestine, information and technology are now the largest sector of the economy, and Startup Weekends have been hosted in Gaza, Nablus and Ramallah. In addition to regional tech companies, humanitarian groups like Mercy Corps and USAID have sponsored events in Palestine and in Egypt. In Delhi, a mobile-focused startup weekend saw anti-corruption app Awenest take second prize, and Intel-sponsored Next Big Idea gave its first prize to a biomass energy company last year.
Startup competitions, especially those focused on technology and innovation, directly address the social problems these countries face. Internet sales promise to boost the Palestinian economy where regional conflict has made physical exports difficult. Tech competitions in Assiut and Cairo have given women the opportunity to participate in business in places where rising university graduation rates have not translated into many new jobs for women. Most importantly, startup competitions and incubators can provide alternatives to political instability and unrest in countries like Pakistan, according to the authors of a recent report by the Economic Policy Group.
Because of the difficult nature of defining which enterprises are "social" and which aren't, Startup Weekend hasn't separated the two yet, preferring to focus on boosting enterprises no matter their goals. However, in its partnership with Mercy Corps, it is launching the first “Tech4Change Weekend” on June 7-9 in Portland, Oregon--a Startup Weekend where social impact will play a leading role. The international NGO will share insights about the needs of the "bottom billion" while the tech and business gurus will explore ideas to solve the challenges presented.
Increasingly, however, those “bottom billion” solutions will come from the global South. At Mercy Corps, an Egypt-based impact investing fund is in the works, and Andy Dwonch, senior director of social innovations, sees participation in Startup Weekends as a huge opportunity to address youth unemployment across the globe:
“Startup Weekends are extremely useful to get young people and other participants thinking about 'doing something' on their own and not simply waiting for an existing company to hire them... these events help to shake things up, get participants and communities excited.”
But start-up competitions are just a step in enriching entrepreneurial communities, Dwonch says. For Mercy Corps, they are accompanied by “mentoring and acceleration services, and a range of financial investors from very early stage seed investors to later stage expansion capital."
Wherever you are in the world, it seems nonprofits and companies are increasingly recognizing social enterprise’s rightful place within venture capital and startup culture.