Challenging the system from within at the Emerge Conference 2014

Student Life

Hanli Prinsloo is standing on stage talking about her passion for water. And the funny thing is, I am feel touched. That I would never have thought about setting up an NGO to promote ocean-awareness doesn’t matter. This isn’t my project but it truly is hers. Hanli has found her dream and is trying to share it. I feel that here, at the Emerge Conference 2014, I am going to learn a lot about dreams.

When no talk or discussion is going on, a bustle of activity pervades the Said Business School. The people here seem driven, full of ideas. Inventive, but strangely pragmatic. They are clearly more entrepreneurs than activists. A rare species of problem-solvers.  Who are these people?

Among them, there is Paul Gilding, the person who has done just about everything (advising Unilever and being CEO of Greenpeace International, to name just two). His leitmotiv: Living a life on purpose. But this comes with no a hint of anti-corporate resentment. Too pragmatic to let things like ideology get into his way, he assesses the problem, and then finds a way of solving it.

This seems to be the prevalent attitude in a session with social entrepreneurs sharing their venture experiences. Jackie Stenson, for instance, never wanted to become an entrepreneur. As a trained engineer, she planned to go into product development. However, while travelling after her degree, she realised that most of the exciting and useful products she was dreaming of already existed. The problem: no one knew about them. Now, she is co-founder of Essmart, a company that bridges the gap between life-improving technologies and the local market in South India.

What is the most important thing to have in a social enterprise, then? All four panelists agree: It’s people. People who are just as motivated, as crazily enchanted by your mission as you are. It is also helpful to bear in mind that, after all is said and done, a social enterprise is still an enterprise. Jackie reckons that her project – as opposed to so many others – succeeded mainly because of the years of research she had done to find a business model before she got started. “Finally, we found it – and we stuck to it”.

David Haskell, CEO of Dreams InDeed, adds that it was crucial to him to get started in the private sector to gain the skills you need to ensure success in the social sector. It sounds like cherry-picking: Take the skills, but leave the competition at home. Make profit, but don’t work for the sake of profit. The last piece of advice Jackie offers us? – “Ignore the advice!”. A real do-it-yourself mentality.

Whether one aims to democratise science, decrease food waste or develop 3D-printed prostheses for children, everyone here aims high. Jesse Moore, having already connected more than 100,000 homes to solar power, still feels his enterprise is only “starting to walk”. Many others feel this frustration of scale, the sense of being just a drop in the ocean.

“We cannot rely on entrepreneurs to save the day” says Maggie De Pree, co-Founder of The League of Intrapreneurs. She describes intrapreneurs as like entrepreneurs that sneaked into a system to pull the levers from the right end. The League’s focus is finding those highly motivated people who often don’t realise their potential. Their hope: creating a network of people who can bring about change in big structures.

Julian Fricke is no stranger to the challenges faced by intrapreneurs. “When I went to join the German Federal Office after University, my friends thought I was crazy”. He has to admit, however, that it is not easy to be innovative in the public sector. “In foreign affairs, you cannot take risks easily. But then, in some parts of my work, I can try new stuff”. He stresses that although government structures have the image of being rigid, it is even more important to approach them with a fresh mind – instead of seeking one’s fortune in the private sector. “New topics require new answers. We also need inventive people at the government level”.

At this point, Inna Veleva, who is project manager at the BMW Foundation, intervenes: “But, you know, your project still has to fit into the enterprise!”. This is a reminder that we shouldn’t try fighting our way through big organisations that work completely against our beliefs. However, if there is a fruitful give and take, any company will probably be happy to have someone able to think for themselves.

While I don’t feel I could be an entrepreneur; facing encrusted corporate or public structures, I sense they have a point: once you manage to subtly alter the job description, you can start to bring change from within, overtaking the ones that tried to do it all on their own. I agree, like almost everyone in the lecture theatre, with Paul Gilding when he says: “What you do matters. Not the institution”.

PHOTO/Emerge Conference

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