Social enterprises are businesses that aim to address and solve social issues. Recently, with the rise in entrepreneurship initiatives across the region, social entrepreneurship is also starting to become part of the conversation.
Tariq Al-Olaimy, co-founder of 3BL Associates, is a Bahraini social entrepreneur. Tariq’s passion for social causes, specifically health care and climate change is evident in all his work, including co-founding Diabetes.bh, the first online education and community platform for diabetes in Bahrain, and the Arab Youth Climate Movement (AYCM) Bahrain. We spoke with Tariq to understand the nature of social enterprise in Bahrain and the many opportunities available in the field.
Social enterprise may seem like quite a new concept in our part of the world, why do you think that is and what could be done to create more awareness and understanding around the subject?
Broadly speaking, social entrepreneurship is the practice of combining entrepreneurial innovation and business sustainability, to address critical social and environmental challenges. Social entrepreneurs focus on transforming systems and practices that are the root causes of social issues like health care access, quality of education, and environmental degradation.
In Bahrain, it's important that the now flourishing entrepreneurship ecosystem expands to also include a social entrepreneurship ecosystem. This includes mainstreaming social enterprise as an option for young people in universities and start-up incubators, government and private sectors investors creating funds that are targeted to social enterprises and their financial needs, social enterprise solutions being highlighted at start-up and pitch weekends, and government actors being open to engaging social entrepreneurs as part of their services to citizens.
But the nature of social entrepreneurship worldwide is also changing. All businesses, in reality, should be a social business, where they focus on sustainable outcomes, act ethically, make a positive difference in their customer’s lives, and solve real problems that society is facing rather than creating problems to solve.
From your experience, what do you think it takes to be a social entrepreneur?
Social entrepreneurship starts with empathy - the ability to understand what other people are feeling and to guide one’s actions in response. Individuals that develop the skill of empathy are more likely to be able to master the skills needed to create a social impact as an entrepreneur.
Social enterprise also requires a particular mind and heart-set. Social entrepreneurs are those who have a strong ethical fiber, are able to identify resources where other people see problems, who see the communities they are serving as the solution rather than the problem, and as Bill Drayton expresses -- the person who first coined the term social entrepreneur - they are not content just to give a person a fish or teach them how to fish, they will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.
What sort of career opportunities or options are available for people looking to work with social enterprises in Bahrain?
There is no greater reward than to be in service to the world, to live a life that belongs to you, and to live a life that is in line with the values and truth that you hold. Social entrepreneurship is just a tool to enable that, and just like ‘regular’ entrepreneurship, not everyone can or should be a social entrepreneur - but everyone can contribute as a changemaker.
The best place for a young person to start is with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals and 169 targets they cover encompass almost every area of life that matters. Whether you are an aspiring entrepreneur looking for inspiration or starting a career in the food, fintech or fashion industries, every person can integrate at least one of the Sustainable Development Goals in their work.
Joining organizations like AIESEC or the Global Shapers also gives you the platform to be able to learn about the SDGs that are most pressing in Bahrain, start projects that shape your local communities, find potential future co-founders, and improve your skills as a social entrepreneur.
In terms of future career paths, I feel it’s important to mention that the world is in the midst of such a rapid technological, social and economic transformation that no university curriculum or course is able to keep up. You will need to unlearn quickly to keep pace with change.
Whether you are studying medicine and need to learn how cognitive computing technology is personalizing healthcare and enhancing the patient experience or whether you are an ICT or finance student, and need to learn how blockchain technologies will revolutionize how business is done across many sectors, and how it can also prevent corruption, reduce inequalities, and lead to more ethical business practices in Bahrain.
These are the kinds of exponential technologies that will be the tools of social entrepreneurs in the next years and it is in your hands to unlearn what is no longer relevant from your university studies and make use of all the free online learning tools to constantly keep updated on what is possible.
What do you see the future of social entrepreneurship in Bahrain to be like? Is there enough scope for social enterprises?
In Silicon Valley, there is a saying that most tech start-ups are focused around solving one problem: What is my mother no longer doing for me? (e.g Uber, Instacart, Juicero).
Whereas in Bahrain (social) entrepreneurs should think about: What is my government no longer doing for me? The reality is that as the government adapts to the low prices of oil through national austerity measures, introduces taxation, and focuses on the transformation of industries, it is impossible for any one government ministry to address complex and interconnected issues like climate change, gender equality, quality of education, diabetes, or sustainable transport in Bahrain. There needs to be a collaborative approach for innovation across government, NGOs, businesses and social enterprises. Currently, there is a gap in social entrepreneurs participating meaningfully in the economy and creating solutions to our most pressing social and environmental challenges.
At 3BL Associates, we conducted a study in 2013 on the potential and scope for social entrepreneurship in Bahrain. This looked at Bahrain's most pressing socio-economic issues and then mapping them to potential solutions, market-ready potential, and the ease of a social entrepreneur addressing them in Bahrain, according to the stakeholder consultations with public sector actors. The five main areas identified were social cohesion, education, health, youth and the environment. You can download the report here, which includes social enterprise briefings of those 5 issues, case studies, data packs, and further information to get you started!
Photo by: Robert X. Fogarty