In the Business of Change with Elisa Birnbaum - author interview

by: EJ on 06/08/2018

In the Business of Change chronicles how social entrepreneurs weary of waste and injustice are using business savvy to tackle challenges in their communities. Part story-telling, part lessons learned, this book is for everyone who wants to rebuild their communities and believes that business can be a powerful, positive force for change.   In today's interview, author Elisa Birnbaum shares how she got involved in social enterprises and offers tips for social entrepreneurs looking to scale up their businesses.

What is your favourite story and why?


That’s a really tough one as I liked so many stories and was inspired by so many people who ended up in the book. But some people really stuck out in terms of their innovative ideas, strategic approach and determination to “do it!”. For example, California-based Bureo is a social enterprise that transforms discarded fishing nets into skateboards as well as other consumer goods. What I loved most about their story was that they didn’t just jump on an idea that they were passionate about – tackling the huge levels of plastic in the ocean. They did extensive research on the type of plastic they can work with and the products they could create, from a sustainable and profitable perspective. They realized that some ideas would work better than others, they saw that plastic bottles were already at the heart of many other business ideas, leading them to focus on skateboards and fishing nets. They also recognized that working with communities on the ground was key to moving their social enterprise forward so they set up partnerships. Effectively, they were smart and continue to be smart about their business and those strategic decisions have helped them immensely.    

How did you get involved in social enterprise?

For many years I was writing about the nonprofit sector for various outlets, including Charity Village, a job site for the nonprofit and charitable sector. I was also writing business pieces in newspapers and magazines. And when I saw that some in the nonprofit sector were turning to business models to help them overcome some of their challenges (particularly a decrease in government and foundational support) and to help them become more sustainable in the long-run, I was fascinated. I thought it would be a tipping point for the sector and I wanted to learn more. Moreover, the opportunity to write about these social entrepreneurial endeavours allowed me to meld two of my strongest niches – business and charitable/nonprofit sector. But getting mainstream media to accept my social enterprise story pitches was a real challenge. Most didn’t understand it and thought their readers wouldn’t be interested. My gut told me otherwise. So, along with a co-founder, Nicole Zummach, we launched SEE Change, a digital magazine that would be focused solely on this field, one I expected would take off. And it has.

What advice would you give an aspiring social entrepreneur?


Oliberte shoe factory

Like the guys at Bureo, I would advise anyone to do your due diligence. Remember that a social enterprise is a business so don’t jump in before you know it inside and out. Spend a lot of time researching the area you’re looking to get into, get to know your competition and understand fully the gaps that aren’t met – and the ways you can help. Sometimes the initial idea is not the best one – keep your options open, maintain flexibility. And please understand that, while a social mission is essential, without a strong business plan and business mindset, it’ll be much harder to meet that mission. So keep your eyes on the financial and social balls. And know that it won’t always be easy to juggle the two but it will be worth it. There will be challenges but if you keep your focus on why you’re doing this, you will achieve great things.

 What’s the hardest part of scaling up your idea?


There’s no one answer here. That said, I’d say the hardest part is not having enough financial resources to move them forward, whether because they haven’t yet achieved profitability or because financial institutions or investors aren’t supporting their work. It’s really hard to take a forward step without that financial backing. For others, it’s a questions of credibility. They try to scale up before they’ve established a strong reputation and that can work to their detriment. You need to have patience. One step at a time. You also need to realize that you can’t always take one successful model and dump it into another spot. Sometimes to scale up effectively, you need to customize and localize your business to the specific needs of a city or community. Finally, some people focus too much on the social mission and not enough on their business. The story may be powerful and it can boast a wonderful purpose but that doesn’t, on its own, sell the product or service. You need to focus on both financial and social objectives to find success and to take your social enterprise to the next level.



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