You are hereA Working Project in A Working Field: An Interview with the Social Innovation Research Group
A Working Project in A Working Field: An Interview with the Social Innovation Research Group
by Zhang Zhiying
Entrepreneurship has been in vogue in the business world for decades, and more recently, another buzzword - “social entrepreneurship” - has captured the imagination of today’s generation. There are plenty of reasons for this: the combination of business models with public benefit, the blurring of boundaries between the nonprofit and for-profits sectors, and many other characteristics that people usually associate with social entrepreneurship: innovation, risk-loving, flexibility, etc. And yet, despite the alluring halo surrounding social entrepreneurship, the term itself is loaded with ambiguities and controversies.
Four University of Toronto graduates and Asian Institute Alumni, instead of rushing into the spotlight, co-founded the Social Innovation Research Group (SIRG) in Taiwan: a creative venture which gives them a more critical perspective on this would-be scalable impact-generating engine model.
Although coming from remarkably different backgrounds, delving into a project on social entrepreneurship seemed like a natural progression for the four of them. Melinda Jacobs founded and worked in non-profit endeavours in high school, while Remi Kanji learned the ropes in a social consulting firm that her friend started. With a life goal of being an entrepreneur, Wendy Pan’s interest in social innovation is very recent. For Reza Mirza, what piqued his interest in the sector was meeting and speaking with the leaders of various social enterprise startups when he worked in San Francisco.
While interest is one thing, endeavoring on a journey far from the conventional vocational path – which secures you fame and gain relatively faster – is another story. Well aware of their lack of experience and knowledge in the field, the SIRG provided them with the opportunity to learn, explore, and do something real. For Wendy, having worked for two years in the United States, the comfort of a high salary and full benefits did not excite her as much as embracing challenges in a new working and living environment. And self-ownership feels good.
Taiwan may still remain a sideliner in international affairs, and yet, this amazing island stands at the forefront in the making of social enterprises, as in many other fields. All four SIRG co-founders were selected to visit Taiwan as U of T delegates in the past and have been immersed in its exceptional history, politics, and developmental path. With the generous support of Professor Joseph Wong, the Director of the Asian Institute, the choice of Taiwan for the pilot project was not accidental. Among many reasons, Taiwan’s small size grants it strategic importance for SIRG: it is relatively easier to navigate resources and to have a panoramic view of the social entrepreneurship landscape.
The project was able kick off because of research grants from the Asian Institute; however, this initial investment ran out fast in proportion to the amount of fieldwork they have done. Besides learning financial discipline, tutoring in English was a common practice, and each of them has their own ways of financing the trip: Melinda worked in a startup and venture capital firm; Reza was doing freelance data reporting for a San Franciso startup; Remi is looking into freelance journalism; and Wendy, helping a local organization, is figuring out how to get paid without a bank account in Taiwan. To be self-sustaining in the face of limited funding opportunities and uncertain job prospects, SIRG’s best currency was their time, passion, and marketable skills.
Venture Plan and Deliverables:
Built upon the ambition of a successful and sustainable think tank for social enterprises, SIRG aims to generate valuable research insights and to share them with a wider audience. Sufficient research on targeted organizations, adequate preparation of valuable questions, and effective pre-interview communications are crucial for a high-level discussion and future analyses. Equally important are follow ups with those interviewed, and through an established network of colleagues, further connections with local social enterprises.
Although with the aim of supporting local or international social goals, the focus of these local enterprises are vastly different, including environmental improvements, technological innovations, minimizing poverty, etc. Nevertheless, the main theme interlinking SIRG’s research is their tough and incisive questions: how to define social entrepreneurship? How to synthesize profit-ensured corporate operations and social-based goals? What are the keys to increasing efficiency and scaling up the impact? What kind of social innovation ecosystem should a society have and what is the government’s role in it? How do we assess and evaluate the impact of social enterprises?
Like all other new “models”, the project concept is still being tested, and its deliverables vary and are adjusted over time – but elasticity and flexibility are exactly what define entrepreneurship. “I just want to get my hands dirty in something I'm interested in”, says Melinda, and yes, their photos of working in a muddy field were posted.
Production and Distribution channels:
From massive inventorization based on interviews, social events, and conferences to critical reflection and analysis, along with diligent and regular writing, the scale of the SIRG impact largely relies on the extent of “public-ation”. Along with sleek and informative newsletters, they blog, they tweet, they facebook, and they wordpress. On February 27, a SIRG-hosted symposium will convene practitioners, academics, and industry veterans for a discussion of the challenges faced by social enterprises in Taiwan, and will probe solutions for improving the innovation ecosystem. Still expanding their network, this conference will serve as another forum where practitioners can express and exchange ideas. A series of post-conference white papers will keep facilitating the spread of lessons from Taiwan to interested parties.
“It’s all good”
Uncertain project direction, a slow pace of progress in the beginning, and a volatile research cycle, not to mention constantly being turned away by the suspicion towards the young and inexperienced, the four of them are being very honest about the not-so-romantic experience of starting-up a social enterprise. “It was a tough path, but we walked it”- I believe with tenacity and smarts. And after all, Taiwan is an amicable and convenient place to be. People there love to share their stories and experience. Despite these difficulties, their entrepreneurial positive thinking saves the big “but” for later.
Join the “social innovation” bandwagon
To echo Melinda’s prudent appeal, profit and social impact can and should exist in harmony. Nevertheless, the relentless effort put towards distinguishing social and non-social enterprises only proves the urgency for “rational bandwagoning”, until social innovation becomes the new business norm. SIRG, on the curve of this movement, puts forward meaningful questions and maps out possibilities and visions.
Despite the iteration of agendas on the way, many ideas SIRG floated in the beginning were realized to a large degree. And yet it will overlook their phenomenal achievements if we only applaud this assemblage of entrepreneurial personalities. To the four of them, the pace of learning has been exponential over the past five months. Because of this, they also hope that SIRG can sustainably provide personal growth opportunities for more students.
Just as most social enterprises need systematic scale-up and supportive funding models, SIRG’s sustainable growth and outreach impact relies as much, if not more so, on new approaches, methodologies, frameworks, as well as a mindset toward capitalizing on opportunities, safeguarding incentives, and creating resources.
As one of the minds inspired by SIRG, I call on all of you to join the social innovation bandwagon.