Madi Sharma: They Label Me "a Social Entrepreneur" but I Prefer to Be Called "a Social Capitalist"

ODB Brussels learns about social entrepreneurship and whether special skills are a prerequisite for success in an interview with Madi Sharma, an entrepreneur from Nottingham (UK) who founded and runs the Madi Group, a group of international private and social enterprises and NGOs, with a philosophy to create innovative ideas tailored to local action which can achieve global impacts beneficial to society. Madi is a public speaker internationally, particularly in the field of entrepreneurship, female entrepreneurship, diversity, gender balance and corporate social responsibility. She is a UK member of The European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels (Brussels), a Prime Minister’s appointment, representing the Employer’s Group. 

"My greatest achievement is taking an unknown single parent of ethnic minority background, without qualifications, and making her a global case study and role model. I love what I do, there are not enough hours in a day, and I am proud that my enthusiasm inspires others", - Madi Sharma.

Madi Sharma, social entrepreneur (UK)


She is currently a board member of several public and private sector boards and NGOs. It may be hard to believe but Ms. Sharma started her first business literally "from scratch": a recent divorcee with no means of support or any education... in her own kitchen! ODB Brussels talks to Madi Sharma about the inner workings and philosophy of "social entrepreneurship" as the key to positive social change. Read her full interview below.

“Social entrepreneurship is exactly the same as entrepreneurship with only one difference”: interview with a social capitalist Madi Sharma

ODB: Madi, for Belarus social entrepreneurship is still a new concept and many people do not understand it clearly. How do you define social entrepreneurship?

MS: Belarus is not alone. The majority of the world does not understand the meaning of social entrepreneurship, because it is a new concept. It has different meaning even in EU-states. My definition is social entrepreneurship is exactly the same as entrepreneurship – it is a profit making and sustainable company, the only difference is you chose what percentage of your profit will go back to your company and the social cause you are supporting. Basically, you want to change some social situation or problem, help someone, and in order to do it you start business that brings you money and you put the profit back to make these changes. Usually a social enterprise is focused around the subject in which its founders want to make a change. It is not a charity and many NGOs think they should be given money to run these companies, because they are doing good things, this is not what a social enterprise is. A social enterprise makes profit and uses the profit to drive social change, which could be through an NGO, but first you have to make the profit!

ODB: Regarding the profit that you put back, is it any particular percentage?

MS: I think in the UK it is around 40 % or even 50 %, but nobody really regulates it. So you can put less, but if it is 5 or 10 % from your profit, I do not think you can be classified as a social enterprise. In this case it looks like CSR. Normally, in Anglo-Saxon countries we see social enterprises as real business, that contribute to the society putting a large percentage back into their own companies to have social benefits. While in Southern Europe people think that in social entrepreneurship you are not allowed to make a profit. But how are you going to make your enterprise sustainable? Or if you give 100 % of your profit back, then my question is how are you going to live? If I cannot make a profit, I cannot be sustainable and I cannot make a change. The first driver for me in making profit for me and my family as I need to give the food to my kids, but I am taking out a normal average salary, the same as my stuff. The second driver is then the social changes.

ODB: I think to make profit or give 100% back came from the stereotype that people do business and entrepreneurship just to get money, while NGOs and thus social enterprises aim first of all social changes.

MS: Despite all the things that people say, bankers say, politicians say, the majority of people who go into entrepreneurship are not doing it for money. They do it because they have an idea and they want to show that this idea can work. Entrepreneurship is having an idea and turn into an action, but it has to be sustainable. Even if your idea is social, for example, you want to help old people or youth to get jobs, you can still do it and make money. If you don’t make money then the company /idea will fail as it has no way to live or be sustainable. Always ask, “where is the money coming from to do what I want to do?”. If it comes from your hard work, then it’s from your entrepreneurial spirit and you have a choice what you do with that money, that’s the social entrepreneurship bit. If you have to use someone else’s money to live, then its charity!   

ODB: Do you think then the definition of social entrepreneurship is good or it has to be named differently?

MS: I am actually against the word social entrepreneurship. For example, in some countries of Eastern Europe they mix social with term socialism. I like a term entrepreneurship and to be an entrepreneur. But the label social entrepreneur has stayed with me now. My favourite definition of myself is that I am a social capitalist as I make money, I make the money ethically and then I use the money to make social changes. This is a model on which actually the Madi Group is based. It is not based on social entrepreneurship, because sometimes I need some profit for different things, what will not fall into the social entrepreneurship category. Generally, you have to be very careful with labels. You have to look on companies’ background like, where they are getting money from to run a company, because some of them take the money from none legitimate sources, some use the situations to capture funding that Governments give or to use some tax benefits, and then what they actually do with a profit and how they can show it.

ODB: What are the benefits of social entrepreneurship generally for society and for economy?

MS: The benefits are exactly the same as from a traditional business: job creation, wealth creation through paying the taxes, solving of societal problems and the creation of innovations as social entrepreneurship is looking for a new way to address social needs. Actually it is innovation in niche markets. Also social enterprises support regeneration and growth inside of local communities as more often they are based inside city centres or rural areas, so they hire local people who earn money to spend in local areas. And usually social enterprises look after the areas they are located. What else I really like is that in social enterprises people work as teams, they go to the communities, do things inside of the communities for free. For example, we always teach unpaid in schools, we go and act as speakers on different events. I am mentor of 400-600 people around the world, it drives change, but I could not do it if I didn’t have any profit in the first place.

ODB: Madi, when and how did you start your first social business? 

MS: My first business was a profit-making company. I started at 29 years old when I had a difficult situation in my life. I would say then everything was against me: I was a divorced single parent, a survivor of a domestic violence, female, Asian and without any qualifications, skills or official competencies. I was in poverty and did not have money to pay someone to look after my kids, so I could not go to work, could not get any qualifications to get a job. Then I started my first business in my kitchen at home: I was making snack food products. Eight years later we were producing 10 000 products a week, sold them to supermarkets and employed 35 members staff. All of them were like me –  long-term unemployed and with similar backgrounds. Then I failed and started an import-export business from India. Basically, we were buying the products made by women in villages and, as they did not have any market to sell it, we were selling their goods to the retailers in the UK and other countries in Europe. It is kind of network marketing as Avon, where women support other women. This model really helps women to get a great training to be an entrepreneur, and after they can go and set up the business in evert field.

Then I was invited to a business class in school to talk about my life. And the teacher turned to me and asked if kids could sell our products. So we did it and the kids really enjoyed to sell. As a result, we set up the other business called Extraordinary Education: we give students a 14 weeks course on how to do business selling actual products that we provide to them. We do not teach them how to do business plans, they literally go out and sell from the first day. It is brilliant as the students make a profit and keep it. The issue was that as they were selling products from my company at our normal prices and so it meant that we were making a profit too, from the children! This could be termed child labour and exploitation. So we turned it into a social enterprise: the students keep the profit they make, so they have choices of what to do with the money they make; but the profit Extraordinary Education makes from the students selling the products now goes to support a child through education in India. So we are not abusing the kids and they understand social responsibility, trading and have a choice on what to do with their profit and see that we are doing CSR. So that was the first social enterprise. I went into social entrepreneurship as I saw a real change I could make in the society.

ODB: How many companies and in which countries do you have now?

MS: We have 8 companies around the world. Nottingham, UK; Brussels, Belgium; Paris and Bastia, France; Delhi and Bangalore, India, Skopje, Macedonia; and several other cities which we are currently looking to start something in. Some of them are NGOs and social enterprises, some of them are profit making. We have all of them under one umbrella as it makes easier to reinvest the profit. We know exactly where every penny spent.

ODB: Which of them are the most successful?

MS: The profit making ones are most successful and in order to keep everything sustainable and everything going we have to focus on them the most. The more profit we can make, the more changes we can make. It is our goal. Social enterprises usually take more time. Of course, the reward financially is less, but it is also about building capacity and having a strong community base where you can drive local action to make an impact.  

ODB: What are the social problems you are solving?

MS: We have a series of things. We support women, the empowerment of women and girls, and building female entrepreneurship. We help young people and supporting them into jobs and the decision making process. We support domestic violence victims and refugees to be financial independent and strong so they can build sustainable futures which can support them and their families.

ODB: How many people work in the Madi Group?

MS: I only have a core team of 5 to 6 people and all of them are associates. We are team of entrepreneurs – we live entrepreneurship and we breathe entrepreneurship. We also work with other people in order to build a capacity. So we can replicate what we are doing at one country in another country. We sharing and transferring the knowledges all the time because we believe in human capital. I do not believe in big companies and conglomerations and I do not have ambitions for the Madi Group to have thousands employers.

I have to mention that I have brilliant staff. And none of them were hired by CVs. I do not believe in CVs at all.  What I do believe is to have enough work for all of us – we can share and we can work together. And then the one creates an idea, one is looking for the accounting, one is doing contracts, etc. We believe it is a right person for a right job. We take everybody as long as they can add benefits on what we are doing. I do not believe at all in holidays, working hours – all these certain things which restrict a person’s life. If you want to come to work today – you come to work today, if you do not want to come to work today – please, do not come then. You want a holiday – just let me know that you will not be available for a couple of days. I have no idea how many holidays my staff is taking and I really do not care, because they deliver for me. These rules and restrictions are created by trade unions without any flexibility. I want my stuff to be happy and love what they are doing and want to work for me. And that is what happened. I respect my staff and I am proud to say they respect me.

ODB: You do not have offices in the countries where you work. Does it have any particular reason?

MS: An office is an ego, people have big offices with the name and logo on it, so they can tell everybody how great they are. The Madi Group is not about telling people how great we are, we show it through our actions. The whole time is about focus on implementation. We believe in exceeding expectations – we never ever expect the clients will come to us – we go to our clients. An office is overhead of using your money. In any country, where we have people from the team, an office will cost 200-500 pounds a month, and we can use these moneys for projects or supporting another entrepreneur. So why should we waste them?

ODB: In your opinion, how to motivate people to become social entrepreneurs?

MS: It is very easy. It is not about being born as an entrepreneur or not, it is about that today there is no such a thing as a job for life, and today each of us has a passion to drive some kind of change. We all want to see something different. The question is how passionate are people that they want to see these changes. If you have passion enough, then social entrepreneurship is a great thing for you to be able to make these changes. But you have to want to do it, we can’t make people to do it, we can empower people to do it. Especially if you are in a bad life situation, the only way is to start to make a change you want to see. Let say you do not have job, so you can simply start to clean a road around you, look after old people and many other things. You just need to find a way that someone will pay you for it. People think they have to be given a check for 2,000 euros every single month in order to live, but if you took a hundred of twenty euros, you will still get your 2,000 euros in the end of the month. We just have to look on different models. But people have to be empowered to see these models.

ODB: Except empowering, what conditions important to have in order to develop SE?

MS: What is good here in the UK that it embraces all kind of entrepreneurship and it makes so easy for you to be able to trade. So it is important to create the environment that enabling for the business.  This is usually the role of Governments, but people too can encourage others to start businesses instead of telling them not to take the risk in case they fail!  

ODB: Can you name the best examples of social enterprises – generally in the world and those where you were involved?

MS: The thing with social enterprises is that there are many small of them I work with and it is difficult to name some of them. I hate to name particular ones. The best example in the world is Ashoka. Everybody knows them. They do great work and they are really inspirational. In India I really like the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), what started with 5 female entrepreneurs and now they have 1.5 millions members. They all work together, look after each other and empower each other.

ODB: You work as a consultant and expert for many projects and in different countries. I think for many countries social entrepreneurship is a new sphere and they think that it will not work there. What would you advise for empowering people?

MS: When we go to a new country the main thing is to talk to as many stakeholders as possible and bring them together to discuss the problems and real actions how to resolve them. We did the same thing when we started in Macedonia. There we worked on traditional and social entrepreneurship. We talked to the government to explain that social entrepreneurs also need to be empowered, to the entrepreneurs, we went on TV and other media, we had some meetings, we asked girls to go to schools and explained it there, so we get people to talk about it. And then we went back to the government and showed the issues that the entrepreneurs raised. They did not know what is social entrepreneurship. Suddenly, the Government came out and issued a paper on social entrepreneurship.

You need to bring all the stakeholders together around the table as quickly as possible. It is what we did in Romania, when they needed a help with developing entrepreneurship. So first of all we wrote to all important people, who involved in entrepreneurship there, and invited them to take part on the road table on the radio. No one believed that it would happened, that people would come. I said that we need to try rather than sitting and telling that it would not happened. We asked these people to talk about the issues they faced not to complaint on politics. And it was a shock that all of them came on the round table. It was unbelievable. Before we run the table I was very clear with the participants, I said that we were not doing a talking show, they had to put one concrete action on the table about the change they wanted to see and what they would do to make it happened. It really worked. The nicest thing was that media said that the person from oversees managed to put everybody around the table and to work together. Nobody else could do it before. And this is a problem we are so concentrating on our internal politics in a way that some people cannot work with other people and groups, and then someone from other country comes and just makes it happened. So people need to stop blaming anybody else or culture, just put a concrete piece on the table and tell what you are going do about it. And that how you get the actions going.

ODB: Madi, are you planning to open any new enterprises in near future? Who in your team usually comes with new ideas for enterprises?

MS: It depends. The ideas for the companies are actually come from me, the people I work with or who work alongside me. At the moment we have two new enterprises on the table. One is the book, what actually will be an enterprise, most probably social. And the second one is a recruitment agency based on hiring people without CVs. I am fed up with people saying we have to have CV, because all the CVs are standard and the majority of the people are lying there. So people will tell us what job they really want to do and we will help them to find it.

ODB: It sounds interesting. Can you tell a little bit about the book?

MS: My book is about no excuses. It is about me and it is about you and how you can do what you want to do without blaming anybody else. It shows 7 steps you have to go through to be where you want to be. It is not about how to do, it makes you do it. The whole thing is relying on you. If you do not do something you basically cannot say that it does not work. Now the book is in the draft stage. It went already to four people, who are working on the book’s sale development, and each of them told me that as soon they started to read they started to act. That is what it about. The book is for social entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs, NGOs, people who wants to change their community, for politicians, it is for everybody.

ODB: We will definitely read it and hope to see you in Belarus. Thank you so much for the interview.

With support from the European Union, ODB Brussels in partnership with The Network University (Netherlands), Belarusian youth NGO "New Faces" and the World Association of Belarusians "Baćkaŭščyna" launches the Social Entrepreneurship Incubator project in Belarus. Participants of the 9-month international training programme will have a chance to learn the basics of social entrepreneurship, explore the experiences of the Belarusian diaspora in the EU and the US, and take part in a competition to get funding for their startup.

ODB Brussels thanks Olga Kapachenia for her assistance in preparing the interview.

ODB Brussels