Collaborative entrepreneurship — the only solution?

Submitted by: John Converse Townsend on 10/13/11

Editor's note: This post was written by Sarah Johnson, director of research at Ashoka, and published in Alliance magazine.

We think of the social entrepreneur as a solitary figure, face into the wind, pursuing a unique vision of change. As a result, social entrepreneurship organizations have traditionally focused on providing entrepreneurs with individualized support. But what if entrepreneurship could be reimagined as collaborative? What if entrepreneurs could join forces to realize a collective vision for change faster? If anything could be more powerful than a big idea in the hands of a great entrepreneur, it would be an even bigger idea in the hands of many entrepreneurs.

Intrigued by the potential of collaborative entrepreneurship, Ashoka sought to develop a framework that would synchronize and multiply the impact of our fellows without impeding their individual missions. We discovered that when there is a critical mass of Ashoka Fellows working within an issue area, we can take advantage of this and evaluate their work from a bird’s eye perspective. By identifying where their visions for the future overlap, where they face common challenges, and which innovations are most promising, we can start to divine where the field as a whole is going. We then present these insights to a global audience, helping accelerate the work of our fellows.

This process, named Venture Collaborative Entrepreneurship (VCE), has four main steps:

  • Discover Identify an accelerating area of social change.
  • Search Find and support entrepreneurs in this area through our fellowship programme.

  • Mosaic Analyse the work of these entrepreneurs to map a mosaic of key insights and best practices.

  • Collaborative engagement Engage other organizations to disseminate these insights and launch demonstration projects.

As an example of this process, let’s take a look at one of our most promising VCEs: hybrid value chains. Over the past 30 years, Ashoka has seen the citizen sector catch up in size and efficacy with the business sector, presenting opportunities for individuals seeking to create both economic profit and social good. In response to this observation, we asked: what forms of business-social hybrids are out there? And what can we do to advance this field? After selecting new fellows, engaging in dialogue with the most innovative and effective entrepreneurs in the field, and combining this knowledge with that gleaned from other experts, we set to work mapping a mosaic.

In so doing, we learned that value can be maximized when existing for-profit organizations collaborate with social entrepreneurs instead of creating entirely new organizations. Businesses offer scale, expertise in manufacturing and operations, and finance. Social entrepreneurs offer lower costs, strong social networks and deep insights into customers and communities. Together, a firm and its social sector partners can create products with more economic and social value than either actor could have created alone. This is what we call a ‘hybrid value chain’.

Our mosaic-building process complete, we looked to engage others in disseminating these insights and launching a project to prove their efficacy. One opportunity immediately jumped out: housing. One billion people live in slums and squatter cities, resulting in an untapped trillion-dollar housing market. This market had been impenetrable for businesses, which lacked the understanding to reach local markets cost-effectively. By introducing Colceramica, a Colombian tile maker, to the human rights organization Kairos, we enabled them to overcome this barrier. Together, the organizations produced a low-cost tile line sold by an all-female sales force, providing jobs to 179 women, improving the living conditions of over 28,000 families, and earning nearly $12 million in revenue.

That was not the end of it. Through articles in publications such as the Harvard Business Review1 and projects in other industries and areas (drip irrigation in Mexico, for example), we continue to build momentum around the idea of hybrid value chains.

The foundation of all of these activities was the experience of numerous entrepreneurs. Though they may not have entered into a formal partnership, we drew on their collective wisdom. There is a lesson here for everyone: collaboration need not be the enemy of speed or innovation. The parallel efforts of hundreds of entrepreneurs, civil sector organizations, businesses and other stakeholders can be joined and multiplied without impeding the work of any individual actor. Indeed, in a world whose problems escalate every day, there may be no other solution.

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1. ‘A New Alliance for Global Change’ in Harvard Business Review September 2010.