Changing the World Through Social Enterprises—Brazil Is All About It

Submitted by: John Converse Townsend on 11/06/12

Editor's note: This post was written by Ashoka Community Mobilizer Isabela Carvalho and Michelle Fidelholc, a Changemakers associate in Brazil.

This October, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil hosted the 2012 Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF), the biggest global event focused on developing market practices to solve social and environmental problems. The forum, now in its fifth year, was organized by NESsT, an organization that provides support to social enterprises in emerging market economies, and brought together leaders from around the world to celebrate, promote and expand business development and social impact investments in Brazil and beyond. As a collaborative partner, Ashoka was represented in many ways by both Fellows and staff.

The venue couldn’t have been better chosen! Built in 1871 as a storage facility on the waterfront docks of Rio, the historic building was renovated in 2002 and now accommodates the cultural center of the Brazilian NGO Ação da Cidadania. For the SEWF 2012, the Centro Cultural Ação da Cidadania was divided into more than ten rooms, fully decorated with recyclable material. On the second floor, the audience could find a charming marketplace where social enterprises showcased their products and services.

During the three days of event, about a thousand people had the chance to meet experts in the field and learn more about how social enterprises are changing the way that development is viewed in all corners of the world. Within the theme of "Investing for Impact," the SEWF focused on attracting, leveraging and scaling investment capital for social enterprises. For this, the forum organized learnings across eight parallel tracks:

  • Finance & Investment
  • Social Enterprise in Brazil
  • Innovation, Invention & Design
  • Leadership Development & Education
  • Management & Skills-Building
  • Cases & Models
  • Economic Opportunity & Social Justice
  • Enabling Environment

The audience was heterogeneous, with representatives from private corporations, public sector, non-governmental organizations, social entrepreneurs, students, professors and media professionals. The event was also a good moment to discuss terms and concepts that are often talked about, but not always fully understood. In one of the panels (“Researching Social Enterprise”), for example, Mônica de Roure, director of Ashoka Brazil, drew attention to the distinction between the terms "social enterprise" and "social business," even though we can see more and more social entrepreneurs moving to the second model.

A social enterprise is an enitity that aims to achieve a social mission, while following a business model that helps it achieve financial viability, sustainability and scale. A social business is one that expands access to goods, services and opportunities for those at the base of the global economic pyramid. A social entrepreneur, in this context, is someone that creates an innovative solution to a social problem; the solution could take the form of a non-profit or a social business that incorporates business principles to earn profit and make social impact. 

In another panel, Ashoka Fellow Rodrigo Baggio and Daniela Matielo, a community manager at Ashoka Changemakers, pointed out the ways in which competition can identify potential social enterprises around the world and stimulate the entrepreneurial spirit in all kinds of people, especially youngsters. Both the audience and the other speakers showed significant interest in the collaborative online model developed by Changemakers and its three pillars—knowledge, technology and community.

The increasing number of events focused on social entrepreneurship and social business—like the SEWF2012, which again succeeded in mobilizing so many citizen sector organizations—is evident in different corners of the world. As Antony Bugg-Levine, co-author of the recently published book "Impact Investing: Transforming How We Make Money While Making a Difference" well pointed, "We need to expand our sense of obligation to the other." And perhaps a consistent way of doing this is to transform economic tools into solutions to social challenges.

Besides that, events like this one also show that the work of social business leaders involves inspiration and empathy. The success of a social enterprise can also be measured by its power to motivate those who have the potential to restructure the old ways of thinking about how to meet the world's demands.

Once this idea of blending profits and purpose is well spread and accepted, we will have a fairer society—formed and shaped by real changemakers.