Naina Bhushan

Current Oxford MBA student Naina Bhushan gives her perspective on the Skoll World Forum seminar session ‘Lessons from a Social Entrepreneur’.

“Andrea Coleman (Co-founder and CEO for Riders for Health) is a social entrepreneur for the past 25 years, from even before such a title existed.”

This introduction by Carlos Miranda, the CEO of I.G. Advisors, instantly reminded me of my mother, who I would call a social entrepreneur. She runs a small business of hand-embroidered Indian wear manufactured in the shanty areas of a city in India employing 100 women and preserving the dying handicraft industry. But my mother wouldn’t agree with me; she started her business 25 years ago when such a concept of social entrepreneurship did not exist. However, I believe I grew up with an inspiring mother and a motivating entrepreneur, if not a social entrepreneur.

Throughout the delegate run discussion, I couldn’t help but find similarities between my mother and Andrea Coleman, especially in the way that both are such go-getters – an important ingredient for a successful entrepreneurial life. Andrea, along with her husband (Barry Coleman), found an opportunity in the healthcare delivery industry in Africa backed with her passion for motorcycles. It took grit to swim against the tide and establish Riders for Health in a time when the social sector had little to no focus and support. So, what does it take to be a social entrepreneur, especially to be a successful one like Andrea? Andrea believes that you just have to go with your instinct and trust your judgment, however challenging and daunting the task may be. You just can’t give up.


Lessons from a Social Entrepreneur, L-R: Kristine Pearson Naina Bhushan

I could see nods around the room showing agreement to Andrea’s advice. This was followed by a healthy discussion, where Andrea, along with others, shared her lessons from being a social entrepreneur, especially with respect to fundraising.

Andrea said fundraising is a two-way exchange between the organisation and the donor. This is something she learnt when she made her first grant proposal in 1999 that was rejected. The reason being she only stated what she wanted and not what she could offer to her donors.

Andrea advised:

– Develop deep relationships with you donors; listen to their needs and realise that what you are saying to them is a powerful thing.

– Understand the role of restricted vs. unrestricted funding.

– Respect donor money because investing in a social entrepreneur is a significant risk.

– Be honest to your donor and share everything early on. It takes time to build trust.

– Human connection is of prime importance.

Ruben Vardanyan, Founder and Chairman of RVVZ Foundation, and Robin D’ Alessandro, CEO of Vitol Foundation, strongly supported Andrea’s advice. Ruben emphasized that developing professional and personal trust is important in a donor-organisation relationship. Beyond fundraising, he mentioned that it is imperative to be result-oriented and hire the best people at competitive compensations to be successful in delivering the impact.

With respect to fundraising, Robin, a donor for many social and environmental projects, said it is important for organisations and donors to be honest to each other. There’s nothing wrong if things don’t go as expected in a social enterprise, given the social sector complexities.

For effective fundraising, Justin Williams from Riders for Health suggested that telling the story of your need, individuals and impact that engages people’s imagination is critical. It is your passion and your story backed up by your statistics that will unlock the money.

That being said, Andrea urged that there needs to be a shift in the way philanthropy is done; social enterprises must move from donor dependency to sustainability – show your work; show that it works; and find partners that would pay for your solution at a reasonable cost. Riders for Health is striving to achieve a balance of doing the right thing – improving and saving the lives of many in Africa by building a robust healthcare delivery infrastructure – and making sure that the organisation survives to do the right things.

The life of a social entrepreneur is definitely not a cookie-cut path, but a roller coaster ride that comes with its thrills and fears. Even successful social entrepreneurs like Andrea get jaded and tired while wrapped up in the mundane activities of running an organisation. However, visiting the field time and again makes her realise that impact is not a distant thing; it refuels her passion and reenergises her to continue on the arduous, yet rewarding, journey of change. Kristine Pearson, the CEO of Lifeline Technologies, said it is the kids (the beneficiaries) and the impact that helps her withstand problems such as failing partnerships.

Seasoned entrepreneurs like my mother and Andrea may not fancy the more recently coined title, ‘social entrepreneur,’ but they definitely are among the many resilient and inspiring people that are weaving the social fabric of the world.

For more social impact insights by Andrea, I would suggest reading the blog written by Carlos Miranda in the Huffington Post.