Social entrepreneurs – Crazy for impact

The School for Social Entrepreneurs recently celebrated the graduation of its second Sydney cohort – fifteen social entrepreneurs each seeking to address an important social or environmental challenge in their community.

So who are these social entrepreneurs?

Beyond having passion, drive, and commitment to a social or environmental issue it is hard to stereotype our social entrepreneurs. They are as diverse as their ventures and all have different styles and approaches.

The Social Entrepreneur of the Year announced at our graduation was Shanil Samarakoon for his work in developing local social entrepreneurs and providing access to sustainable technologies in rural villages in Malawi and Sri Lanka. At only 25, Shanil is on his way to developing a micro-finance solution in those communities as well.

We also acknowledged Nicole Endacott from our graduating class for being a model social entrepreneur and action learner. Nicole is the founder and CEO of Activate Australia, and more recently Springboard. Activate is a graduate of SVA’s inaugural venture portfolio, and Nicole has since gone on to become a serial social entrepreneur through her new initiative.

We recognised Tracey Allen, founder of Red Cockatoo Australia, who is taking undiscovered Aboriginal artists to new markets. Tracey along with Michael Combs, founder of CareerTrackers, were awarded our Project Achievement Award. But it is Michael’s story that I really want to share with you. Michael spoke on the night and told a story that resonated so deeply with each of the social entrepreneurs and how they are often seen by those around them.

His speech was called “I’m crazy!”

To give some background, Michael is a young, intelligent social entrepreneur with a great gift of the gab. When you first meet Michael, you wouldn’t think that this guy is crazy.

Yet as a social entrepreneur, Michael set himself a fairly formidable challenge. As an American by origin and global thinker by nature, he arrived in Australia to find a situation in the Australian private sector that he thought was unacceptable. He was alarmed at how few opportunities there were for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to attain private sector jobs, and participate in corporate leadership.

Driven by his frustration at the lack of opportunity, Michael set about to create Australia’s first dedicated program to identify talented young Aboriginal people and actively create jobs for them. Thus CareerTrackers was born, and his life as a ‘crazy’.

Now I must admit that when I first heard the idea, I thought: does Michael really know what he is getting himself in for?

And Michael knew that everyone around him thought he was totally crazy.

But if there is one thing that I have learnt about social entrepreneurs is that they will surprise you in the most remarkable ways. It makes our job at the School for Social Entrepreneurs very interesting when it comes to selecting people to be a part of our 9-month program. We do ask them about their ventures and their goals, but at the same time have learned not to place too much attention on the feasibility of their idea or venture in the first instance.

It would seem that more significant than the idea or the development of the business plan is the tenacity, boldness, creativity, drive and ‘craziness’ of the individual to make it happen. We often say that you can give the best business plan in the world to someone without the passion, skill and drive to implement it and the plan will be worth no more than the paper it is written on.

But give a ‘half-baked idea’ to a social entrepreneur and you will be surprised at what they will do with it.

So where is Michael and CareerTrackers now? Every week in the program, Michael would report back with new achievements and actions. He has formed partnerships with 15 major Australian companies, created 30 internships for young indigenous Australians, and gained the support of senior Federal MPs. Each step along the way, Michael exceeded the targets he set for himself, and even surprised himself as he went.

CareerTrackers also found support through Social Ventures Australia. As part of SVA’s focus on employment-driven social enterprises, it was recognised that CareerTrackers will deliver significant employment outcomes. This success is not just about the idea though. People invest in people. SVA and others have realised that Michael delivers on his promises. And SVA have long been in the business of investing in not only social impact, but in the ‘crazy’ social entrepreneurs who are behind them.

To date, Fellows of the School for Social Entrepreneurs have created over 41 jobs and 256 volunteer positions. Their projects have already generated over $3 million in revenue, over half of which is through trade and contracts. Beyond this they have developed greater confidence and capacity in delivering improved social and environmental outcomes.
It was great to hear Michael’s story at our graduation that night. It was a reminder to me about the true magnificence of the social entrepreneur. I feel blessed to be in the position I am in – to engage with and support ‘crazies’ as they go about implementing their important social and environmental visions.

I just hope that along the way some of this craziness rubs of onto me, and that I can live as courageously and creatively and our students.