Social entrepreneurship: business smiles

Companies are realising that using their skills to deliver social benefit not only improves lives but makes good business sense too, as Vision finds out

Bold, bright and beautiful, Zeina Abou Chaaban’s clutch bags are lusted after around the world and have been spotted on celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow and Eva Longoria. Despite their A-list following, however, Palestyle’s designs come from humble beginnings, many having been hand-stitched by a Palestinian woman living in a refugee camp in Lebanon.

However you define social entrepreneurship, it’s clear that there is enormous potential to change lives as well as make profit

“We are a luxury fashion brand, but at the core of what we are doing is the social element and that is the empowerment of the refugee women,” explains Dubai-based Chaaban, who was born in Egypt to Palestinian parents. The 30-year-old, who spent her early life in Germany, launched Palestyle in 2009 after visiting a refugee camp in Lebanon, where she was as inspired by the embroidery skills of the women she met as she was disheartened by their poor living conditions.

Fast-forward four years and business is booming. Her bags, jewellery items, dresses and shoes are sold across the Middle East in high-end stores such as Bloomingdale’s as well as online to a global audience. In addition to paying the women for their work, Palestyle puts five per cent of its sales income back into community projects for the refugees, such as the planting of olive trees or supply of new water tanks.

Chaaban, who runs the company with her brother Ahmed, and who was recently named Humanitarian Woman of the Year by Dubai-based fashion magazine Emirates Woman, is known as a “social entrepreneur”, someone who is using their business skills to deliver social benefit to others.

Social responsibility

“For me, this is about empowerment and giving these women dignity,” she says. “It helps people feel directly involved. Today’s customer wants to do good, but they don’t necessarily have the time to do it themselves, so they are happy to be able to do good while shopping.”

Ahmad Ashkar, the founder and CEO of the Hult Prize, a prestigious startup incubator backed by Bill Clinton, defines social entrepreneurship as “doing good while doing well”, a business that sits on “the intersection between private, public and social”.

“Nobody is interested in charity alone any more,” he explains. “Corporations may give a fixed amount to the poor, but the model of the future is that every time you pour yourself a fizzy drink, there’s a net impact being felt everywhere along the value chain.”

Social entrepreneurship: business smiles
Ahmad Ashkar, who assists startup businesses, with Bill Clinton

Ashkar, an MBA graduate from Hult International Business School, which has campuses in London, Shanghai, Boston, San Francisco as well as Dubai, says he launched the Hult Prize to stimulate discussion about entrepreneurship and help good ideas become reality. The competition attracts 10,000 entrants from colleges and universities across 150 countries. There are six regional finals, including one in Dubai, and the winners receive US$1m of seed funding as well as support to launch their business.

Previous winners include a team from New York University in Abu Dhabi who created affordable solar lighting solutions for African households previously relying on kerosene, as well as a support network for after-sales care, ensuring product sustainability and creating jobs.

“What the financial crisis taught us was that corporations and the private sector also have a responsibility to look after the people,” explains Ashkar, who splits his time between Washington DC and London. “I think we are seeing a reverse approach of corporations who know they are not going to attract the best talent unless they can answer questions about what they are doing for society,” he adds.

Job creation

Small businesses and entrepreneurship are regarded as key drivers of job creation, something that the Middle East and many other parts of the world badly need, in order to placate young and increasingly frustrated populations.

Ashoka, a non-profit network formed more than 30 years ago to promote social entrepreneurship, believes that everyone can be a “change-maker” and it asserts that the time has long gone when only a small elite could effect change in the world.

Social entrepreneurship: business smiles
Schemes are in place to help educate rural farming communities

“Many people will say don’t give a poor man a fish, give him a rod to catch a fish,” says Iman Bibars, Global Vice President of Ashoka. “But at Ashoka we say don’t just give him a rod, find a way to revolutionise the whole fishing industry. For us, being a social entrepreneur is about being a step ahead, beyond just changing what you are doing but really being innovative so you bring about change to the whole system in order for it to become truly sustainable.”

However you actually define social entrepreneurship, it’s clear that there is enormous potential to change lives as well as make profit. That is attractive to entrepreneurs and corporations to whom entrepreneurs may sell their ideas in the longer term. Technology is a key influencer in this. The availability and power of mobile devices mean that now even some of the poorest people have access to the internet for communication, information and consumer purposes.

Hult Prize CEO Ashkar says: “If you look globally at what is happening in the developing world, you see that the beneficiary of a charity is moving from being a beneficiary to being a customer, and the corporate sector is integrating social because it knows this is its customer base of the future.”