I have been called a entrepreneur.. And I never quite like it. In my activist mind and soul there has always been something dark and blurry about business- the money. The solemn need to make money literary confuses me. Yes, we all need money for food and clothes and bla-bla, but I m not talking about that- the desire to possess and earn money- I don't get it. Maybe cause I have never been rich, also I have never been poor...
It took me a few years to understand why and what bothered me in the term "entrepreneur" and why I would not call myself that, even though I m a founder and partner in a social enterprise. Together with an amazing team of dragon-slayers we run The Social Teahouse- a wonderful house where we mentor and employ youngsters, who were raised in orphanages in Bulgaria. The place was and still is a bottom-up community led project, It is financed mainly by donations, supported by the local authorities, an international network for social entrepreneurs and a lots of volunteers. Not your usual start up.
In my head there is a very visible line between start ups and social start up, also quite a difference between founders of regular start ups and the social ones. The motivation behind the decisions,the founders' behavior, where the profit goes, the company values and costumers profile- all of that. I have to admit that until a recent meeting that changed my mind for Hackatons and Start Up weekends participants I perceived the wanna-be entrepreneurs as profit-hungry-app- developers with acne and greasy hair. And then on the contrary- the brave social entrepreneurs come to save the day with their off-line solutions and amazing hair. Of course, I am wrong and I do own an apology to the app developers, but I have witnessed many start up ideas live just for the fun of the founder, and they die immediately when the next "best start up" comes along. My problem with entrepreneurs is ....I don't take them very seriously, cause they are money- driven, and as noted before I don't get that.
Through the Reach For Change network, we are part in, I have met so many great change-makers- and yes, they are making a change: mission-driven fighters and innovators from all around the world reshaping their local context with global ideas. And yes, all of the conversation we have there are related with social impact, change, progress, communities and profit is only a tool, never a final destination.
For me what we do in The Social Teahouse is a cause, but it needs profit in order to be sustainable. This was hard to swallow for many of our supporters and even now many people come to the Teahouse and gasp in surprise cause they have to pay their (a bit) overpriced tea. Why? Cause if we don't charge there is no Teahouse. That simple. We have 11 employees, all of them need to eat. We have the building and all its taxes and bills, we have the mentorship program and the camps for the kids, the workshops for the orphanages and many, many more "invisible" expenses . But you see, you wouldn't ask Starbucks how sustainable they are and what they spent their money.... You wouldn't ask them why they charge you for your overpriced unicorn-frappuchino-latte? Right?
Business changes, cause costumer behavior changes. Costumers are changing constantly because we live in the most dynamic times in history. Many times class, value and image go together and it has nothing to do with you, but with the products and services you use.
Exactly in that kind of society, in this exact moment we have to stop and redefine businesses. There is this amazing Harvard Business review where they say "Not all profit is equal—an idea that has been lost in the narrow, short-term focus of financial markets and in much management thinking. Profits involving a social purpose represent a higher form of capitalism—one that will enable society to advance more rapidly while allowing companies to grow even more. The result is a positive cycle of company and community prosperity, which leads to profits that endure.''
In that description I may actually find myself as a entrepreneur: the one, who enables society to advance and support others' growth- in other words the dragon-slayer. I love how the review underlines "All profit is not equal"- not only how it is created but also how it's spent. I can tell you that behind one of our teas there is our manager (a long and dedicated volunteer before she became an actual employee) who goes to the shop and buys herbs, then there are the boys who are trained and mentored in the Teahouse to make your tea tasty, then they pour the tea in a hand-crafted mug with a logo which was a gift by a very talented graphic designer and the cherry on top is your delicious spoon of local honey which we buy from the grand-daughter of a bee-keeper each month. It is a true fairy tale. It is not a cup of tea.
If you go 50 meters down the street you can get tea, too. But it is just the tea. No fairy tale, no dragon- slayers. Regular tea.
Something's value is what people are ready to pay for the product - the fairy tale, the volunteer turned into a manager, the boy from the orphanage who did so well in his first year, that now he is a mentor for other boys from the same orphanage. Our tea has value of 10 teas. That is why it has the price of two regular ones.
Let me explain that, as well. If you pay respectively to your employees, if you grow your brand with patience and have a partner supply chain with supportive behavior you can maybe afford to be competitive on prices. But if you want, on top of that to organize camps for children, to have a volunteer group to the orphanage on weekly basis and to keep everything on track, your price is not your best selling point and you have to be able to explain why. What we do is not cheap, not because we are greedy, but because it is complicated, hard and time-consuming. Our social impact just takes a lot- time, resources and belief. To mentor somebody is hard, but to mentor a kid with no family is huge responsibility and massive investment of time. To be able to empower somebody who has had low self esteem for 18 years and to be able to help him/her back in society really takes time. And you as a costumer see only a barista- a good one, if we had done our job right.
I don't expect every business to be a social enterprise. Today. But I will be very happy with a certain percentage. Like 90% ...
Ok, even 20 % of all businesses to aim at creating social benefit for the community is a good percentage, don't you think?
Now, seriously, I don't know why that is so impossible. Business is so damn boring now- money, money, power, money. We have to think more for the people, for the environment, for our kids and their kids. For the peace. Let's think of businesses as tools for economic and social change. Business sometimes is more influential than politics and I have given up on politics, so maybe that is the way?
Profit is a good thing- without profit you can not exist as a start up- doesn't matter if social or not. But how you operate with profit can be crucial when it comes to community and social impact. In The Teahouse all profit is reinvested in the mentorship program. In Starbucks all profit is reinvested in the share-holders, God bless their Ferraris. I m sure they have a good CSR by the way, but still.
If you don't feel like a social entrepreneur or any sort of entrepreneur, that is still OK. But be a responsible costumer. Think before you buy and value what you have payed for, because value is not only a price, but a process, an investment, sometimes even a mission.
for more info on the Teahouse please visit us on Preslav 53, Varna 9000, Bulgaria or www.thesocialteahouse.bg or write us on FB:SocialTeahouse and email@example.com
Photo credit to ROOM88 and Jeevan Pathare
from the workshop Lego community building held in the Teahouse