In 2015 Samuel Kalika was looking to set up a creative project in Portugal. But his idea “completely tilted”, he says, when he arrived and saw the extent of poor-quality housing in the country, contributing to high mortality rates in winter. Today, he’s the founder and director of Critical Concrete, a company that researches and educates on sustainable architecture and design.
Kalika, who has also lived in Germany and China alongside his native France and has hosted numerous entrepreneurs from overseas at Critical Concrete, is perhaps not the typical business founder. But less nomadic entrepreneurs could also benefit from looking beyond national borders.
“If you’re a farmer in Italy, you might think: why do I need to connect with others abroad?” Ivelina Fedulova, senior project officer at Eurochambres, told Pioneers Post on the sidelines of Euclid Network’s Gathering to Grow event last week. “But maybe people in Portugal are doing something similar, in a completely different way that’s more efficient.”
Eurochambres runs the support office for the European Commission-funded Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs programme, which enables new or aspiring entrepreneurs to spend one to six months working alongside more experienced counterparts in another country. Since 2009, some 6,000 exchanges have taken place or are about to start, including nearly 400 participants working primarily in the fields of social economy, responsible entrepreneurship or corporate social responsibility (plus many more working primarily in other sectors such as food, who may also be social businesses).
Entrepreneurs sign up for different reasons, according to Fedulova. In some countries – like her native Bulgaria – the concept of social enterprise is “completely foreign”, she says, making it much easier to develop a business where one’s field (or, say, consumer appetite for ethical products), is more established. On the other hand, says Fedulova, an innovator might be developing “a very specific concept” – something unique that they’d be reluctant to share widely close to home. Discussing and testing ideas in overseas markets means less risk of sparking direct competition.
Many social entrepreneurs see expansion overseas as a way to grow their social impact. While being rooted in the community is often core to their mission, this isn’t always incompatible with working internationally. A survey among UK social enterprises in 2013 by the British Council and Social Enterprise UK, Exporting Social Enterprise, found that 74% of those exporting to overseas markets aimed to “improve a community” in doing so.
74% of those exporting to overseas markets aimed to ‘improve a community’ in doing so
Evolve was set up in 2003 to improve health and education among children in England, but founder and director John Bishop says he is “always looking at other markets”. The social enterprise is about to send its first health mentor to Australia, and Bishop is hoping for more opportunities, having recently met a Greek policy-maker responsible for educational reform at a conference. “He wants wellbeing to be placed in the centre of the Greek education curriculum and he’s asking us for advice on how to do that,” he says. Getting the attention of British politicians, meanwhile, is “difficult”, Bishop claims, partly because Brexit discussions are diverting so much attention.
Some social enterprises are further ahead in their international journey. UK-based Toast Ale sells its beer in the US, South Africa, Iceland and Brazil, through a blend of licence and franchise arrangements. Moyee Coffee, a Dutch venture, has granted a licence to two Irish social entrepreneurs to sell its products; Moyee Coffee Ireland now counts Airbnb and Groupon among its corporate customers. Dialogue in the Dark, an exhibition concept developed in Germany, is now available in 21 countries, and Social Enterprise Academy, having experimented with various forms of replication, is developing 12 social license hubs outside its birthplace in Scotland.
But most social enterprises tend to think locally, or “at best nationally”, according to Mark Richardson, director of Social Impact Consulting and one of the researchers behind an EU-funded project on internationalising social enterprises, InTSEnSE.* That local focus is fine, he continues – but entrepreneurs may be missing out on opportunities to earn additional revenue or to work with beneficiaries overseas.
And, where social enterprises do work internationally, it tends to be on a fairly small scale, such as doing some consultancy abroad or selling online to customers in other markets, says Richardson: “As a core part of the business model, it’s rare.”