Learning from the Successes and Challenges of Social Enterprises in 2021

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

As we shared in a recent end of year reflection, although the challenges of the last few years have taken a toll on us, “it’s also done something else: it’s made us stronger, it’s made us wiser, and hopefully a little more empathetic, too. 2021 showed us that we need each other to succeed – no single person or organization can solve the world’s most thorny global challenges in isolation. Our illusions of a speedy return to “normal” (whatever that is) have been tempered by the understanding that this messy in-between space is where the real work – and real progress – happens.”

Nowhere is that tenacity more evident than in the vibrant community of social enterprises we have the honor of supporting in partnership with SAP through the S-GRID program. We’ve been leading and learning alongside these social innovators throughout this past tumultuous year, and are continuously inspired by the way that they have turned challenges into opportunities to build resilience and maximize impact.

We can all learn from these leaders’ ability to pivot, adapt, and persevere, and in this post, we’re sharing their biggest insights from 2021 that we can all carry into 2022. 

We asked a group of S-GRID social entrepreneurs: What was your biggest challenge and biggest win from 2021? This is what they shared:

Every Shelter: Getting Creative With Fundraising to Create More World-Positive Jobs

Like many of the social change leaders we spoke to, Every Shelter’s Development Officer, Lauren Hanson, cited access to funding as a major challenge of the past year. She explained, “Every Shelter supports displaced persons living in camps or informal settings around the world. This population is already chronically underfunded and many needs remain unmet by the existing humanitarian relief system. COVID-19 has exacerbated those needs and has contributed to funding shortfalls as governments and foundations have continued to direct their funding towards COVID mitigation, vaccination, and treatment. This makes our work – providing shelter solutions that support exponentially positive health, hygiene, and wellbeing outcomes – all the more important.”

Even amidst these funding shortfalls, Every Shelter was able to keep up with the exploding demand for its services by getting creative with its fundraising strategy. Lauren shared, “This challenge taught us that we have to explore funding avenues outside where we would usually look. This year we partnered with The Giving Block to accept Cryptocurrencies on our website. This year, crypto funded a distribution of Emergency Floor, our sanitary, insulated, dignity-bearing living surface for internally displaced families in Syria.”

Despite the challenges, Every Shelter was still able to grow its operations and impact in 2021, including the creation of another world-positive job. Lauren shared that, “a big win for us this year was growing our team – we hired a Program Coordinator in Kampala, Uganda, to help us with our Billboard Tarp project. They have been an incredible asset to our team!”

Makers Unite: Prioritizing Partnerships and Expanding into New Market Segments

With heightened competition for limited relief funds, Makers Unite also evolved its approach to funding by prioritizing revenue-based partnerships. Thami Schweichler, Managing Director and Founder of Makers Unite, shared that, “Our biggest challenge over the last year was to develop repeating orders with large customers and secure longer contracts. We want to make sure we have recurring revenue streams that take corporate sales cycles into account, and as a result we have now restructured our partnership process and reevaluated our portfolio.” 

Being able to notice a barrier (or an opportunity) and adjust accordingly is foundational to the social enterprise way of doing business. In addition to spotting improvement opportunities with its partnership process, Makers Unite also uncovered a new market segment to expand into: clothing repair. As Thami explained, “We are using the business opportunity to create employment for newcomers by teaching them to become clothing repair ‘certified experts’. The Investment for the project has been committed by private impact investors, and we hope to create 150 jobs over the next 4 years, repairing one million kilos of textiles per year. We have signed up with a launching client and look forward to the program going live in March 2022!”

Mākhers Studio: The Importance of Values-Aligned Investors

Funding was also the biggest challenge of the past year for Wanona Satcher, CEO of Mākhers Studio. And not just getting funding – but being thoughtful about where it comes from. She reflected, “I learned that traditional venture capital doesn’t work for every company, nor does every investor align with my company’s values. I think social entrepreneurs should perform in-depth research into impact investing funds. We’ve received the best financial support from impact investors who prioritize our ‘why’ over our ROI.”

By not giving up and sticking to her values, Wanona was ultimately able to secure over $500,000 angel pre-seed. She shared, “This funding helped me secure my first manufacturing space. This space positions us for the growth we’ve been dreaming for, and provides the infrastructure necessary for my team to expand our impact.”

Impact Enterprises: Virtualization and New Revenue Streams

The pandemic caused disruption to work all over the world, but in places where the digital divide is largest, virtualization presented a significant challenge in and of itself. Impact Enterprises CEO Michael O’Hara shared that, “COVID19 hit Zambia late but hard in the summer of 2021. Infrastructure challenges in the office are easy to defend, but having a large percentage of staff working from home without laptops and WIFI proved particularly challenging. But our operations team rose to the occasion and equipped a sizable number of our employees at home with desktop computers, monitors and WIFI cards. From a production standpoint, we didn’t miss a beat. We learned that you can do anything with the will and a dedicated team.”

It’s incredible what obstacles a dedicated team can overcome, and the team at Impact Enterprises was not only able to sustain in 2021, but to grow. As Michael shared, “our biggest win in 2021 is developing a recurring revenue channel for AI machine learning; data labeling for images, video and text. We had been doing it previously, but it became a focus and was highly successful.”

Urban Spring: Putting People First and Making Space for Experimentation 

The desire to continuously optimize drives every social entrepreneur, but as Urban Spring Chief Empowerment Officer Ada Yip shared, “For us, and I think for any team working in this space in the second year of a global pandemic, 2021 presented new challenges to maintaining high motivation. The biggest lesson we learned was that culture building and validating trust must come before  the technical and process improvement work. When our team is connected, we can embrace change and experimentation. And that’s exactly what’s needed to succeed in all of this uncertainty.” 

Indeed, it was that ability to embrace change and experimentation that led Urban Spring to one of it’s biggest wins last year: expanding into a new market segment. Ada shared, “We secured good momentum in building our school market segment, despite uncertainty in the corporate sector which we were prioritizing before.”

Auspice Social: New Products, New Connections and Certifications

For Parag Ghosh, Founder & CEO of Auspice Social, it was hard to identify one specific challenge that shaped 2021. “For us, the past 2 years have been completely dedicated to resilience in the face of the global pandemic,” he shared. Parag shared that one of the most helpful resources for maintaining resilience was “communication, exchange of ideas, and collaboration with other social enterprises to help each other grow our impact.” 

Auspice has added 30 new products in their range. They now offer 54 different varieties of naturally dried culinary herbs, spices and seasonings across 5 broad categories. All their products are processed, cleaned, sorted, packaged and labeled by persons with autism. They do not employ non autistic persons for their food processing activities.

To help position Auspice Social for continued growth and impact, Parag shared that, “During 2021, we got certified on PAS2060 (Carbon Neutrality ), ISO 22000 (Food Safety), and ISO 26000 (Social Responsibility). We also received several national and international awards.”

World For Good: Self-Care & Staying the Course

Like many social entrepreneurs, World For Good’s Founder & CEO Jennifer Moreau cited burnout as a real challenge in 2021. She shared, “Sometimes it was difficult to keep moving forward. But when you have a mission that is a part of something much larger, the motivation keeps coming, and so I kept going.” 

The ability to keep going – even when you’re tired, or things go awry – is what sets successful social enterprises like World For Good apart from the rest. Recently, Jennifer had a chance to share her insights and real-world tips for other social entrepreneurs about running a social enterprise on the Sticky Brand Lab podcast, which you can check out here. That persistence paid off – as Jennifer shared, “Our biggest win last year was receiving funding from “Let’s Choose Love” to build out our product line, which will help us expand the skill sets of even more people that are at-risk or survivors of human trafficking, slavery, and poverty. Now we offer upcycled headbands, along with our upcycled fabric bags in our online retail shop.” 

ARED Group: Funding Growth Through Partnerships

Like other social entrepreneurs we interviewed, ARED Group Founder Henri Nyakarundi also cited funding as a major challenge in 2021. Henri explained that, “Last year, we failed to raise our seed round that put a stop to our expansion plan and product development. The biggest lesson we took from that experience is that without inside access and the right connections, it is almost impossible to get an opportunity to pitch most angel investors or impact investors, and that most hardtech and deep tech venture funds do not have real interest in the African market.”

Undeterred, Henri and his team continued to pursue opportunities to position ARED for the growth it’s capable of. Through S-GRID connections, ARED was accepted into the Google for Startups SDG accelerator to receive additional specialized training and mentorship on SDG partnerships, social impact measurement, leadership, and fundraising. ARED’s biggest win came from thinking outside of the traditional funding “box” of impact investors to consider growth through another avenue: partnerships. Henri shared, “We secured our largest partnership to date with Belcash, the largest fintech company in Ethiopia. Together, we will be deploying 15,000 smart solar kiosks with the goal of providing access to the digital economy to around 10 Million Ethiopian farmers.”

Rubysh Jewelry: Digitization and Collaboration

With continued quarantines, social distancing, and travel restrictions, social enterprises around the world had to quickly adapt their strategies to meet their audiences in the digital world. For Rubysh Jewelry CEO Encep Amir, the biggest challenge of 2021 was “figuring out how to reach online communities effectively and introduce our social enterprise and its mission through social media.” Direct mentoring and networking with other social enterprises helped Rubysh hone its digital marketing strategy, and along the way, led to powerful collaborations that have helped expand its reach. As Encep explained, “Our latest collaboration with Jakarta Fashion Hub, one of the most powerful houses that work in bringing inclusivity and sustainability to the fashion industries in Indonesia, has really helped us reach more people online.”

The hard work and dedication of Encep and the entire Rubysh team ultimately earned them international recognition in the form of 2 awards from UN Women Indonesia. “For our effort in engaging with local communities to solve gender issues, specifically about the income disparity in the informal waste management sector (through capacity training for giving craftsmanship skills for the women in the dumping site communities), we were recognized as the “SME Champion” in the Community Engagement & Partnerships category, as well as “Second Runner Up” in the Youth Leadership Commitment Category.” 

Supporting More Social Enterprises in 2022

As you can see from this collection of stories, although each social enterprise is unique, none came out of 2021 completely unscathed. What makes this collection of social enterprises unique is the way that they responded to the widespread challenges facing the social impact sector with the tenacity and creativity needed to not just survive, but thrive. Are you a social entrepreneur looking for the community, connections, and capacity-building support to expand your impact? Learn more about how S-GRID can support you.