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Social Enterprise Dragons breathe fire into business
Ear to the Ground
by Mike Rowlands
on March 06, 2012

Social Enterprise DragonsSocial entrepreneurs don’t get nearly enough credit. They step up to tackle some of their communities’ most vexing problems; they work with minimal resources, leveraging every last penny to achieve their goals; and they measure success at social, environmental and financial bottom lines. Enterprising Non-Profits’ Social Enterprise Dragons event shines a spotlight on these leaders, their organizations, and their challenges. The annual event features three finalists (from among dozens of applicants) who endure direct, challenging questioning from expert "dragons," for the promise of prizes that will accelerate their organizations’ success.


In 2011, Street Youth Job Action was a finalist. Social entrepreneur and General Manager Emily Beam pitched an extension to SYJA’s programming aimed at supporting at-risk youth who are ready to take on regular (or full-time) work. SYJA currently provides daily work for youth, but as these individuals, many of whom face multiple barriers to employment, engage with the program and stabilize their lives, some need another level before transitioning to the larger working population. Much of the impetus also came from trying to get to self-sufficiency.


Beam was challenged to find the resources to develop a feasible plan for this "Tier 2" programming: “We could access advice from local philanthropically-minded people, but we needed financial resources for a feasibility study of our business idea.”


After applying to present at the 2011 Social Enterprise Dragons event, Beam was thrilled to be named among the three finalists (the others were PEDAL and JustRenos). She worked with her coach, a volunteer with BC Social Venture Partners, and a colleague who had been through the SYJA program to craft a presentation that showcased a real-world success, while also pointing out the urgent need for Tier 2.


The Dragons panel wasn’t easily swayed: How can you scale this to make a significant impact? How are these youth going to manage themselves and one another? Is this really a social enterprise, or is it a charity program?




“The panel was daunting, and nerves run high for most presenters,” said Beam, “but behind the ‘Dragons’ label were four of the most dedicated social enterprise supporters in the country. We knew they wanted to support these youth; they just had to know this was the right way to do it.”


Ultimately, the Dragons were convinced, and awarded SYJA a grant from Enterprising Non-Profits to fund a feasibility study. Dozens of ideas for the Tier 2 program were brainstormed with SYJA’s volunteer Advisory Board and others. Then a consultant was engaged to assess the viability of the most promising idea: a profit focused car-washing service to wash staff cars during the workday at major corporate campuses.


Incubating the idea, assessing the feasibility - both for the youth and of the market - and developing the go-to-market plan was a challenging, year-long process.


“We faced a number of challenges along the way,” Beam said. These included:


1. Finding the right idea: Despite all the brainstorming opportunities and focused advisors, the need to extend current services, review products or services that corporate clients might demand, market opportunities and many other variables ruled out the overwhelming majority. And balancing business needs with core constituent needs is an omnipresent challenge for social enterprises.


2. Balancing financial and social impact: Each business idea SYJA studied seemed either to work for youth employment or to make money. Striking a balance in this case proved impossible, and so SYJA had to make the hard choice to prioritize financial sustainability. The Tier 2 program will endure through time, and support the Tier 1 system.


3. Burdening the current program: Extending a program into new opportunities necessarily draws resources (financial and/or time) from the operating program.


Now the challenges are in winning fans of the new Tier 2 idea among skeptical audiences. Colleagues at Family Services (where SYJA is housed) are not comfortable with the more business-oriented language of the new business. And funding for launch has proven difficult to raise. Due diligence and decisions can take four to six months. “In retrospect, I’d have engaged funders earlier in the process,” Beam reported.


As we turn our attention toward Social Enterprise Dragons 2012, we’ve received more applications than ever before, which speaks to the increasing traction social entrepreneurship is getting in Canada. Selecting the three finalists was a difficult process, but on March 8th, the three presenters will collectively showcase both the challenges and the passion behind their enterprises. They’re each motivated to win one or more of the valuable consulting or cash prizes.


But first they must face down the Dragons!


The 2012 Social Enterprise Dragons event will happen on the evening of March 8th in Vancouver, Canada. Learn more at www.socialenterprisedragons.com.


Mike Rowlands

Mike Rowlands is a Principal at Junxion Strategy, an international consultancy that works to catalyse social and environmental progress. Junxion is a proud Presenting Partner of the Social Enterprise Dragons event. Learn more about Junxion at www.junxionstrategy.com.


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