Social entrepreneurship is a concept perfectly suited for Emmanuel Macron’s France: It sounds both left-wing and right-wing, speaks of innovation and compassion, and is a little fuzzy.
But while the hype seems deceptive, the numbers tell a good story. According to official figures, employment in social businesses, defined as corporations, for-profit or not, incorporated with “solidarity and social utility” as a key goal and reflecting it in their governance structure, grew by 24 percent between 2000 and 2014, versus 4.5 percent for private-sector employment as a whole.
According to a study by Social Enterprise UK on French social businesses, over half of the companies they polled said they grew over the past year, and 28 percent said their revenues held steady; 59 percent developed new products, and 39 percent expanded their business to new geographic areas. President Macron says he wants to support the sector, with an election pledge for a “Social Business Act” with a raft of tax and regulatory measures to boost social ventures.
That enthusiasm was on full display last week at Station F, the swanky startup campus funded by French tech billionaire Xavier Niel, with a mandate to become the biggest tech incubator in the world. Station F hosted the Techfugees Global Summit, a two-day conference put on by Techfugees, a global nongovernmental organization that seeks to harness the global tech community to help refugees. The event featured speakers and ventures from all over the world, including France. According to Mike Butcher, chairman of Techfugees and also editor-at-large at Techcrunch, the influential tech blog, France is a haven for social business, because there is a greater sense that migrants are an opportunity and economic contributors, rather than a burden, as they are more likely to be seen in his post-Brexit UK.
I showed up to Techfugees skeptical that I would find more substance than hype and self-congratulatory do-goodery, but quickly changed my mind. I met worthy projects such as My Visa Angel, a chatbot app that helps immigrants to France figure out their visa status and fill out paperwork, a maddening process here that often involves standing in line for a full day and having forms rejected for a misplaced comma. The app grew out of Facebook groups where immigrants helped each other out, and leverages artificial intelligence and volunteer helpers to answer their queries. The company hopes to scale up to address most problems with administrative paperwork, a clear need in France, and an obviously valuable business opportunity -- as well as one with social good for underprivileged persons, who are disadvantaged when it comes to navigating administrative mazes even as they most need the benefits and programs that are available.
I also met organizations like MakeSense, an NGO founded in Paris in 2011 with an interesting concept. Its online platform attracts people who want to volunteer or help out with a cause but don’t know what or how. They also have a “B2B” side, running incubators and other programs to help social ventures take their idea to the next level (and then leverage their consumer-facing platform). The organization has developed training programs for every phase of building a social venture, from ideation to scaling. MakeSense now runs incubators in Mexico and Senegal as well as Paris, and is adding Lebanon and the Philippines, and has over 60 full-time staff and seven offices in Europe, Latin America, Africa and Asia.
The concept is powerful because it addresses two of the key problems with social entrepreneurship. One is assessing results, which tend to be fuzzier than a traditional for-profit company’s, which in the end boil down quite simply to whether there is profit or not. For example, MakeSense’s training workshops focus on a specific issue and don’t end until a satisfactory solution has been found, and the company provides social and environmental audits to partner firms. The other problem with social entrepreneurship is scaling, which is hard since access to capital is scarcer. MakeSense’s accelerator program addresses that through fundraising mentorship programs.
Examples like this, of real ventures based on sound logic that find a way to scale up, show that there is reality behind the hype, and justify Macron’s desire to further empower the sector. I left Techfugees enthusiastic not just about the prospects of social business in France, but about the idea that, at least sometimes, concepts that can seem idealistic and naïve can actually cash out and bring positive change.
By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a Paris-based writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. -- Ed.