Syed Masud Hossain On Social Enterprise: “Future Is Going To Be Different And Better”

Syed Masud Hossain On Social Enterprise: “Future Is Going To Be Different And Better”

Syed Masud Hossain is the Head of Society at British Council, Bangladesh. Mr. Hossain has been leading Social Enterprise at the British Council in Bangladesh for a while now. He was the person behind country’s biggest policy dialogue event on social enterprise called ‘Social Enterprise: Impact and Opportunities’, a two-day long conference on social enterprise and the future of social enterprise in Bangladesh.

In this interview, Mr. Hossain reflects on his experience of working in the space of social enterprise in Bangladesh, discusses extensively about problems and opportunities that we have, shares his idea of successful social enterprise and what it takes to build one and argues that the current challenge for social enterprise comes from both, supply and demand, sides and talks about the work British Council has been doing in the space. 

We started back in 2013 by looking at how social enterprises operate in Bangladesh, what are the problems, and how they can have more enabling environment and how we can support the ecosystem and help people to build better and successful social enterprises.

Syed Masud Hossain Modering a sessionRuhul Kader: What is your experience of working in the space of social entrepreneurship and social enterprise in Bangladesh?

Syed Masud Hossain: In Bangladesh, We, British Council, have been working in social enterprise sector for the last three years. We started back in 2013 by looking at how social enterprises operate in Bangladesh, what are the problems, and how they can have more enabling environment and how we can support the ecosystem and help people to build better and successful social enterprises.

At the beginning, we started with conducting some market research in order to understand the sector, know about the stakeholders and their work and to find out areas where we can contribute. We wanted to be sure about our work.

British Council has a strong global programme on social enterprise. Currently running in 26 countries, we have a great network of people working in the space. The programme promotes positive social change, inclusive growth and sustainable development while also sharing learning and building trust between the UK and other countries. We have expertise and global network in social enterprise sector. We thought we might also connect Bangladeshi social entrepreneurs, policy makers and other stakeholders with the global network and expertise we have to collaborate, share the best practices and to learn from each other.

Then we started to identify the areas where we could contribute and have impact and partners with whom we could work with.

We also came to understand from our market research that to ensure sustainable changes in the space we need to engage and work with the policy makers. We started to dig deeper to understand how we could engage policymakers. After much thought, we decided to work on two areas: capacity building and policy influencing. To shape these two areas we started to design different interventions.

We do Social Enterprise Policy Dialogue for engaging policymakers to the discussion and just launched “Innovate, Incubate and Grow’ (IIG), a social enterprise competition and incubator programme recently alongside our global capacity building project “Business and Investment Readiness Programme (BiR)”.

RK: From your experience, what do you think about the state of social enterprise in Bangladesh?

SMH: I think there is a general lack of awareness and clarity about the concept of social enterprise in Bangladesh. To tackle this challenge we started working with different stakeholders to raise awareness about social enterprise. We also thought of arranging exchange visits between the stakeholders of different countries, so that they can meet, share and learn from each other and implement the best ideas.

I think when we talk about social enterprise; we should also talk about sustainable business model. Is there a business model in place which can scale the social impact while having a self-sustaining and growing business at the same time? This is critical.

Then we think that there is a supply side and a demand side. On the supply side, you need to have the policy, enabling environment and social enterprise needs to be recognized in the policy. It also includes support from stakeholders, resources and soft legislation.

On the demand side, social enterprises need to have the capacity to accommodate those supplies and most importantly, we need social enterprises those are capable of making huge impact and have growth prospect. That means, if you are social enterprise, to make it clear, you have to have the capacity to attract funds, impact funds, when you need it and ability to manage and make it work. I think both the side has to be simultaneously looked after.

At British Council, we are trying to address these two areas and working with the players from the both spectrums.

We are working with the policy makers. We are also working with the enterprises and social investors. They have been invited and exposed to different programmes so that they can get in touch with the social enterprises. Top of that, we are working on programmes for building capacity of social enterprises.

I think when we talk about social enterprise; we should also talk about sustainable business model. Is there a business model in place which can scale the social impact while having a self-sustaining and growing business at the same time? This is critical.

Syed Masud Hossain p3RK: As you said earlier, there is general lack of awareness regarding social enterprise in the market. Top of that, we don’t have any policy or legal framework to define social enterprise both of which are difficult problems to have. To make things clear, would you like to talk a little bit about the kind of social enterprises you are talking about when you are talking about social enterprise and what can be done in order to create right kind of awareness.

SMH: We feel that social enterprises are the organisations that solve social and environmental problems with a sustainable business model. These organizations reinvest most of the profits in the structure again in order to scale the business and take their impact further. At British Council, we are considering to support social enterprises to scale their impact.

We are providing two types of capacity building support: one is institutional which we call Business and Investment Readiness Programme [BiR]. Through the programme we are supporting three social enterprises intermediaries in Bangladesh who are working with social enterprises in the UK to develop some social enterprise support system. These three organizations have got three partners in the UK, who are closely working to develop tools to support social enterprises in Bangladesh.

The second one is in individual level which we have launched recently that we call “Innovate, Incubate and Grow: A Social Enterprise Support Programme”. Through the programme we are training, mentoring and supporting young people with ideas to start and build social enterprises. At the same time, we are going to organise national pitch day for the winners of IIG programme in order to connect them with the investors.

RK: We have been seeing a lot of business plan competitions like IIG. Mostly, students apply for this kind of competitions. In most instances, at the end of the day none of the attendees turn out to become entrepreneur. Being said that, what kind of outcome you are expecting from IIG, since you are working to create awareness as well as more social enterprises.

SMH: I think this is an interesting question that how we help these ideas to sustain and thrive and become sustainable businesses. And this is where our programme is unique. While IIG looks like a mere competition from the outside but it is more than that in the inside. We have other programmes that will support successful new ideas from the programme to grow.

To be specific, we have got three Business and Investment readiness programme partners who are very keen to support any enterprise coming out of this competition. So what we will do, we will connect these people with our BIR partners, both in the UK and Bangladesh, at the end of the programme so that they can get plenty of mentorship and support going forward.

Similarly, we will also support these people from British Council. We don’t plan to end this programme on 31 March 2016 which is the deadline for completion of the competition. Though our competition will end but we will continue this programme next year in a different format.

We feel that social enterprises are the organisations that solve social and environmental problems with a sustainable business model. These organizations reinvest most of the profits in the structure again in order to scale the business and take their impact further.

RK: Would you like to name few challenges you faced during your time of working with social enterprises?

SMH: The lack of clarity and awareness are the two challenges that we faced very often when we started three years ago. We had to explain often what social enterprise is and how it is different from a traditional business. Now things are getting better but back then this was a challenge.

The second one is of course the capacity, things like how to set up and run a business, market access and skills. Now we are also looking at this area with programmes to support social enterprises. The challenge of being recognised in the policy as a social enterprise is yet to be there. You can claim yourself as a social enterprise but there is no such thing in the policy to recognise you.

Funding is also a challenge for social enterprises. People feel that there are not many options of funding for this type of business.

However, my personal understanding is that problems are good and when you have a problem; it means there must be a solution for it as well. You just need to be a little inquisitive, innovative and passionate about resolving the problem.

Syed Masud Hossain p4RK: What are you doing to tackle these challenges?

SMH: For raising awareness, we are doing programmes like IIG and Policy Dialogue. We are inviting people from different sectors, from academia to entrepreneurs to policymakers to private sector and collaborating with different stakeholders in order to raise awareness regarding social enterprises. I think this is a continuous process and we are just getting started.

In terms of capacity building, we are doing Business and Investment Readiness Programme and, IIG and using institutional and individual approach to train people in social entrepreneurship.

On the funding end, we are inviting investors to our programmes, connecting entrepreneurs with investors. Different impact investors have contacted us previously and we are trying to put them in touch with the social enterprises.

As we are talking now, we are doing a research and a social enterprise baseline survey in order to understand the market. We are also building a database of social enterprises. Once we have the database, we plan to launch a network of social enterprises in Bangladesh so that they can help each other.

RK: You had the opportunity to interact with lots of social entrepreneurs and enterprises and see many of them closely. From your perspective, what separates most successful social enterprises from those that are not doing so well?

SMH: Impact, sustainability and scale are the three things I personally use to measure success of a social enterprise. Best ones are often the most impactful, sustainable and scalable ones.

Now what it takes to build one of those kinds of social enterprise? That’s a hard question to answer. I think it starts with a great idea and solving a real problem in the community. You should also have a business model that works.

I think one must understand the problem: what problem they are trying to solve and how they are trying to solve it, what business model is appropriate for that, how they can sustain the business over the time. Understanding these paradigms is critical.

Impact, sustainability and scale are the three things I personally use to measure success of a social enterprise. Best ones are often the most impactful, sustainable and scalable ones.

RK: Technology has been changing almost every industry. How do you see technology is helping us to solve social problems that we have?

SMH: We see technology as a big enabler and will help us to reach wider beneficiaries. We believe by using technology you can reach wider audiences. I feel that there will be more and more social enterprises which will be using technology as a tool to develop their business in coming years.

On the other hand, where we have technology as a big enabler, we can also use other tools like traditional method to solve problems in our society. You don’t have to rely on high-tech to solve a problem.

Technology has its advantages but you have to consider access as well. You have to understand how many people have access to the technology you are working with.

However, I think future is going to be different and better and I’m excited to watch the space.

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