What is the difference between “entrepreneurship” and “social entrepreneurship”? This question has been central in our journey of Gramonnati.
One way to explain social enterprise is that it is like any other business but with a social mission at its core. In a regular enterprise, the commercial models focus on delivering profits to shareholders. Some part of the profit may be contributed for social good. But, social enterprises focus on developing operating models to achieve their social goals. If there are any profits, they are usually committed to sustain positive social impact.
Easy enough, to understand it all in this way. But questions remain. Is there a different way to translate strategy into execution? How to get funding? How to become self-sustainable? What is the right business model? operational model? technology and human dimension? …. and so on.
A delightful insight on what social entrepreneurship truly is all about came my way some months back, when I visited Aravind Eye Hospital (http://www.aravind.org) Pondicherry, with a group of students from a US University.
The vision of Aravind Eye Hospital is “to eliminate unnecessary blindness”. There can hardly be a simpler vision with which every member of the organisation can relate to, in all they do.
They have six hospitals in Tamil Nadu, India. They conduct over half a million eye surgeries a year (mostly cataract surgeries; undiagnosed cataract is the biggest reason for avoidable blindness in rural India). They do these surgeries at a fraction of cost and with a complication rate lower than most eye hospitals across the world.
At first glance, Aravind Eye Hospital is like any other well-managed professional organisation. They would be an envy of any fast-growing enterprise. They have grown in scale without compromising on quality and are very good at what they do. Moreover, they are a profit-making enterprise, even though they leave the choice of whether to pay for services or not to the patients.
At the end of the tour, we had a Q&A session with the Chief Medical Officer, Dr. R Venkatesh.
At one point during the discussion, he mentioned, “For all the scale that we have achieved, we manage to impact only 7% of the target population, who could avoid blindness if only their problems are diagnosed and treated in time”.
So, he continued, “We invite doctors and staff from hospitals from different parts of India, train them in our systems, and when they go back, we give them a challenge …. go back and do more surgeries than us, at a lower cost and at a lower complication rate.” At this, a curious student of the group asked him, “So you train your competitors and then ask them to be better than you?”
Dr. Venkatesh replied, “Well, we are not competing with other hospitals, we are competing with blindness“.
This one statement contains the essence of what social entrepreneurship is all about. When we compete with the problem, there remain no other competitors. There are only collaborators and partners. The familiar stress of competitive environment is replaced by a spirit of freedom that brings out the best in us.
In terms of running an effective and successful enterprise, it matters little whether it is a social one or otherwise. The challenges for social enterprise are as many, if not more, than the ones related to a regular enterprise.
What differentiates an enterprise with a social enterprise, in the ultimate analysis, is its goal.