Event Recap: Social Entrepreneurship 101

What is Social Entrepreneurship?

You may have heard or been thinking about this question since our last workshop on kickstarting innovation.

But this previous Wednesday at our second event of the season, the Student Executive Team (SET) President of the McGill Dobson Centre, Nicolas Briner, highlighted the bridge between social entrepreneurship as both a social cause and as a business. Social Entrepreneurship is the conjunction of social purpose and a social good.

Briner asked the presenters a reflective question: what were your experiences, struggles, and insights on social entrepreneurship through your startup process?


Swathi Meenakshi – RevoLOOtion

Meenakshi started out her social entrepreneurship story with her co-founder, who she met online through a social networking site, years ago with just the two of them as a team; yet here she stood before us her and her team having won the McGill Dobson Cup, presented in the Social Economy Initiative’s Annual Homecoming in 2015, been awarded funding from the Infosys Foundation, and been a semi-finalist of the Forbes $1M to Change the World Competition.

Swathi from RevoLOOtion – a rapid drying, compostable toilet that is a solution to open defecation practices.

Where and how did her story in entrepreneurship start?

During her undergraduate studies, Meenakshi participated in a volunteering trip to India in which she was met with a slight culture shock–open defecation. She cites this experience as a shift in her world view, one that was further fortified by sharing her experiences with her mother, who grew up in India, and laid claim that her hometown was the same.

Open defecation in India is not a cultural taboo, but the growing health and safety risks associated with the practice has put pressure on the Indian government to take measures against it. However, installing toilet systems can be overly costly, especially when the opportunity cost of not buying a toilet is near nothing because open defecation can be freely practiced with no perceived adverse effects. Moreover, not all areas of India and Bangladesh have access to water pipes used in traditional toilets.

Thus, RevoLOOtion was founded as a rapid drying, compostable toilet that is a solution to open defecation practices.

 

RevoLOOtion as a Solution

⅓ of the world population is affected by open defecation and its effects are detrimental to both the local and broader community in terms of health, economic development, and the environment.

Not only are open defecation practices negative, other conventional waste solutions are also unsustainable. 80% of the world’s wastewater goes untreated and is just dumped into the ocean with no sanitation treatments, all of which cycles back into us. Similarly, conventional freshwater flushing toilets are growing more and more unsustainable as our freshwater supply decreases, in this case, more toilets will lead to more toilets flushing leading to even more freshwater waste.

RevoLOOtion addresses all these health and sustainability concerns with the added benefit of being easily constructed and placed inside pre-existing rooms typically only intended for bathing.

 

Not an Easy First Flush

Meenakshi and her co-founder didn’t have the smoothest time throughout this whole process. To begin with, developing a prototype that they and consumers were please with took multiple attempts. The final model, which is shown on their website, was the work of multiple prototypes, countless consumer surveys, and understanding the needs, wants, and limitations of consumer of their product.

This is one of Meenakshi’s key points to producing a successful product designed to meet a specific social need: understand your consumer.

Creating the final version of their product was an achievement, but they were still dedicated to improving. On their website, you will see a timeline of the progress their company has made including their awards and achievements. Not included is an even longer list of over 20 things they have applied to and lost, some of which they have applied to and lost over three times.

 

How do they find the drive?

As she mentioned before, Meenakshi was impacted by something which peaked her interest in a social need that was further reinforced by a personal connection she made with her mother; she had a strong emotional connection to a project, something that her co-founder also shared. While she says it may be possible for some, Meenakshi could never imagine going through the process of countless initial failures on their way to success were she not have been dedicated and committed to this cause, and her advice for others is to find something which you can commit time, energy, and emotional dedication.

 

Heading into the Future
As you may imagine, trying to revolutionize the the daily practices of the ⅓ of the world that practices open defecation can be both overwhelming and difficult.

Meenakshi had an idea to bring RevoLOOtion to construction companies in India, an industry that makes up over 20% of India’s GDP and employs 35 million. But despite to her initial belief, construction companies who Meenakshi thought would benefit from this product had no interest. That’s because they feel no pressure to spend money on facilities when they have no incentive to use them. People were very receptive to using them if they were free, but fewer were willing to purchase them.

However, Meenakshi and her team stumbled upon a new consumer group, Glamping (or Glamorous Camping). Through listening to consumers and analyzing consumer behaviors and needs, revoLOOtion was able to identify an entirely new group of consumer to whom they can sell the same exact product for little to no extra cost and increase their market share.  

 

Where are you and your company in the social enterprise curve?

“Right now we are in the defining product market phase where we are testing things out.”

Meenakshi notes the importance of her consumer fieldwork in understanding and developing their product, and more may be even needed to further their market participation. Many similar missions from NGO’s tend to stay out of India because they claim that it is  “too different culturally to adopt [their products]”.

This dilemma is best encapsulated in a question asked by the audience, what about competition? To which Meenakshi replied,”There’s not even competition”. Due to the sheer size of the population and difficulty for companies to sell their products, there are no direct competitors with revoLOOtion. Similarly, there are no substitutes that are just as easily constructed, sustainable ,and maintainable.

Meenakshi and her co-founder were able to create a successful social enterprise start up through applying their skills to social need which they felt passionate about. What you should take away from her story is the importance of consumer opinions, being dedicated, and staying dynamic and flexible. She is also happy to see such a large community of people interested in social entrepreneurship here today and also to see programs and events to help people learn more and get started.

Wake Up is an open source map interface that addresses the need of more curated and easily accessible civic engagement
Ayal Bark – Wake Up

 

Bark started his social entrepreneurship venture two years ago in 2015 when him and his team member entered the Dobson Cup.

Where and How did his entrepreneurship story start?

In 2015 after the Paris bombings, and a year prior with the shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Bark noticed a trend in social media. People were posting things all around to be seen, signed, followed, but all in an almost directionless swirl on their facebook or instagram timelines also located in between pictures of cats and memes.

Yet in this environment of social awareness and social activism, Bark saw it very difficult for people to engage together with social action.

Wake Up is an app created in response to the difficulty in accessing and finding social activist events in your community.


Wake Up as a Solution

Wake Up is an open source map interface that addresses the need of more curated and easily accessible civic engagement. Bark lists the three main problems of civic engagement in our modern, globalized society: time, proximity, and no proper avenue to access this information.

Wake Up addresses all three of these issues by being able to directly display and suggest to users social activist events based on their area. Through then clicking on the event, the user will be able to see how far away the event is, when and where it is held, and how repeatedly it will be held.

As a mobile app, Wake up becomes another part of one’s routine and civic engagement is literally brought to your fingertips.

A Wake Up used will experience a different catalog of choice than someone looking for social activism on facebook. That’s because Wake Up is streamlined by only showing relevant events and organization (which are approved by the Wake Up team before posting).

 

Difficulties

While it’s currently being developed in montreal and beta-tested, it was not an easy path.

This company started off with no money, but in the span of two years they have received 12-thousand from crowdfunding and the Dobson Cup. Most of the design and programming for the app came from Montreal artists and coders who were both interested and supported the idea and also had the benefit of adding it to their portfolio. With that, Bark emphasises that you can get a lot of support for free if you know how to contact the right people.

Consumer Surveys revealed that consumers were uninterested in certain features of the initial plans of the app such as  a Google Maps Direction add-in. Consumer testing helps create more marketable products.

A lot has changed since the app has started and it has been a whole different market since then. One of Bark’s advice is: go slow. Keep your mission and idea strong but don’t rush. Their company is already considered a 510c3 organization, but Bark says this was not something that needed to be done so early on in the development process. He instead says you should focus more on figuring out what and who you and your organization are before you incorporate.

Aside from dealing with company development. Bark also says one of his biggest problems in developing the app was people promising to help but not coming through. Learning who, when, and how to apply their time and energy to in order to ask for help was one of the company’s biggest challenges in it’s earliest days. Some such as YES Mtl, and Notman House were very helpful, but other organizations were not interested. If you want help just ask, but make sure you know when to stop wasting time on chasing specific people to help you!

 

His Important Take Homes

  1. Don’t work a lot all at once, but work consistently. Try to do an hour a day, but the momentum and keep it going, don’t try to cram ingenuity.
  2. Don’t fuss over everything. Stay open and receptive to new ideas, models, and change and let things fall into place
Chloe Chow from Vent Over Tea – a free active listening service that pairs people who need to vent with an empathetic listener to chat in a local coffee shop
Chloe Chow – Vent Over Tea

Two years ago, Chloe Chow saw a comment on a Spotted McGill post that caught the attention of her and fellow co-founders. The comment was addressing the Mental Health services offered by McGill and asked if anyone wanted to possibly participate in a group discussion around the issue.

Later that week two years ago they all also met at McGill’s Mclennan library, and that same year Vent Over Tea entered and won the Social Entrepreneurship award of the McGill Dobson Cup.

 

The Tea on McGill Mental Health

At one point during her undergrad, Chow said that she had tried to go to McGill mental health services but the wait lines were too long and they said that they  could only book her in for three months later. Not only is access to therapy difficult at McGill, but Quebec access to mental health care is also slow and other groups such as  international students and uninsured (or underinsured) students also have less access to mental health services.

Their solution to access difficulties was Vent Over Tea. Vent Over Tea is a free active listening service that pairs people who need to vent with an empathetic listener to chat in a local coffee shop. Based in Montreal and founded in April 2015 by McGill psychology graduates, their goal is to provide a casual, confidential and non-judgmental outlet for members of our community. Their program is based on studies that have shown the benefits derived from expressing one’s self to a compassionate listener. Their volunteers are not therapists, but they can help you work through your problems by asking reflective questions and showing empathetic regard

Vent Over Tea was first a simple one-page forum and the moderators would post the contact informations of people that needed to talk on a facebook group where the volunteers could plan out who could apply. The website was first developed by McGill Computer Science students who were interested in helping the company develop, people will help a cause that they support.  

 

The McGill Dobson Cup program was a real kick in the butt that our company needed.

When Chow met with her supervisor, she told him that their website had only had about 8 people submit responses. He just immediately told her to come back in two weeks, and to double her numbers from before.

So for those two weeks, her and her co-founders strategized new ways to increase their numbers. They found a new marketing strategy that tripled their numbers in just two weeks.

They also created a new website using a web-template. People had promised to help them develop a new one but yet when it came time no one seemed to be able to help. Networking through the McGill Dobson Cup was on the biggest ways the company grew. They were able to think of their business in a new light and get access to resources and people with many experience to help them develop their company.

 

A New Cup


After the McGill Dobson Cup program, they had grown to be larger than anticipated and they didn’t realize their internal structure. Keeping your company organized and in track is really important in the long-term, even if everything is still going smoothly right now.

While Chow went on a volunteer trip to Panama, the company had added some new directions. For one they started a blog where volunteers and others can contribute. They also tried different approaches, one of which was Vent Over Beer. While it did attract a crowd, it defeated the purpose of going against the convention of venting being something best facilitated with alcohol, and presented more problems.

Vent Over Tea has also recently been featured in the media. Chow’s approach is to contact people who have written articles that are related to your business. Along with that approach, literally submitting articles you have written about your company can also work.

 

Take Aways from Vent Over Tea

  • Experiment. Try different things at first.
  • Ask for help. While some people may be flakey, people are still very receptive to helping you if you ask.
  • Flow. Go with the flow! Remember to always respond to your environment and not get too stressed or stuck on one thing. Be flexible and able to respond to many situations.
Justine Tupe from the Hult Prize Community at McGill spoke about how they can help you get started with social entrepreneurship at McGill.
How to get started in social entrepreneurship at McGill

Interested in Social Entrepreneurship, but don’t know how to get started?

There’s a community at McGill for that! They’re appropriately called the Hult Prize Community at McGill and they are jumpstarting social impact at McGill within the context of the world’s largest student competition for social good.

This year’s Hult Prize keyword is to transform, and the mission is to harness the power of energy to transform the lives of 10-million people.

If you want to find out more about the Hult Prize taking place at McGill on Nov. 25th, click here.

To learn about the community that can help you learn the skills necessary to win, click here.

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Hasan Bilgen

Hasan is studying Economics, Mathematics, and Computer Science at McGill University. In his free time, he enjoys expressing himself through writing about entrepreneurship.