Social entrepreneurship uses business to empower socially-motivated causes. It’s been around for about as long as people have but it feels like it’s going through something of an explosion. Anyone who subscribes to Springwise would be aware of the creative, dynamic and sometimes left-of-field ideas that are converting sugarcane into hard hats and billboards into homes.
On a recent trip to Myanmar with NGO Graceworks Myanmar, I had the opportunity to talk with Ulla Kroeber, one of brains behind the social enterprise Pomelo. She’s a classic example of why social entrepreneurship is so fantastic. Ulla is an architect who spent much of her career in Europe. She’s been in Myanmar for some years now, which means she understands the culture at the same time as bringing a fresh, trained eye for design and product development.
Pomelo really exists on two levels. For the visitor/tourist/shopper, it is a superb, one-stop shop for unique handicrafts made by more than a dozen community groups and organisations. Behind-the-scenes, it is a resource to help them improve their products and profiles. It is powered by a diverse team with different strengths.
“We do this because these community groups have no outlets. They usually sell just to the people who visit them. That is no market and that’s why we decided to have this store,” Ulla said.
“Sometimes we are approached by organisations that want to know what they can do, so we guide them in choosing a product that they can make and that we know will sell,” she said.
“We encourage these groups to produce their own income rather than rely on donations. We also want there to be a pride in Myanmar products. This helps to preserve existing techniques while giving people the opportunity of selling to a market that has not been here before. Tourists are very willing to pay for good quality products and we want people to be happy with what they buy. When they see that it’s made by somebody who might be living in poverty or with a disability, it adds an extra dimension to their purchase.”
“We had a man with a disability who had never worked before. Now he makes paper bags by recycling old newspapers. It’s exciting to have such an impact in people’s lives – going from very limited opportunity to something fantastic…it’s very rewarding.”
The country’s continued opening in almost every aspect of life is also making a difference. People can now express much more than the diminished idea of ‘acceptable art’ of years gone by.
The team takes a wonderfully pragmatic approach to their work. As Ulla said, “we’re really here to give them a possibility”. They don’t take responsibility for their businesses but they provide something that is possibly more valuable - advice. They will help them with ideas or product improvements and, if possible, provide support in sourcing materials.
What I found most refreshing was the attitude toward the business. Yes it’s a social enterprise but it is still an enterprise. They maintain their focus on the products – the range, quality, interest and so on – because those are what attract customers and encourage sales. Simply, Ulla said that she looks at whether or not a product is functional, pleasing, safe and whether it has a market.
They also take a quality first approach, which is where I personally feel that much of the Fair Trade movement has got it wrong. Ulla explained that they want products that are so good people want them in their own right before they make the connection with the people behind them. The latter is, of course, essential to what they do, but their approach is about offering value to the customer rather than expecting that the social/emotional aspect will get a reluctant sale over the line.
Their marketing nous was also superb to see. Even the name is well considered. They wanted a name that was something of an umbrella for everybody and something that would sound attractive in many different languages because they have customers from all over the world. What a great brand insight!
As a side note, it was terrific to hear about the talent in Myanmar. Ulla described it as “amazing”. “There is so much talent and people can do so much with so few resources. I think this is the most fantastic thing about Myanmar,” she said. Pomelo is seeking to provide another avenue that gives people the chance to develop. Ulla said she had somebody once ask her to teach them to look with European eyes and, as she explained it to me, she said, “that’s really what it is – to come to know another perspective”.
My outtake – social entrepreneurship may take courage but there’s room for a wide range of skills. It’s not about changing the world with one business but it is about making an impact in your sphere of influence.
What I really appreciated from talking with Ulla was that clear sense that you can’t lose business savvy in the process of having a social agenda. If it doesn’t have market appeal and it doesn’t make money, it’s not sustainable. Yet, as Pomelo proves, profit isn’t anathema to the social good. If anything, it helps maintain sustainability rather than dependency, front-and-centre.
It’s also a superb example of how you can pull together a range of professions and passions to create a social enterprise. You might have a great idea but you can really give it flight if you find a group of people who share your passion and can bring something to the table to make it a reality.
Then, just maybe, we’re all helping each other to look with new eyes.
As for people visiting Myanmar, make room in your luggage for some ethically-minded, quality products that you won’t find anywhere else.