Social Entrepreneurship Incubator to Be Launched in Belarus

In partnership with TNU Network University (Netherlands), Belarusian Youth Public Union "New Faces" and International Civil Association "Union of Belarusian of the world “Motherland", with support from the European Union we are launching a new programme called "Social Entrepreneurship Incubator". 200 budding entrepreneurs, as well as NGO representatives and teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18 will be able to learn the basics of social entrepreneurship using unique international methods and drawing on the experiences and knowledge of leading Belarusian experts who launched SocStarter. During the 9-month training program, students will get to work with mentors, study practical experience of the Belarusian business diaspora from the EU and the US, and participate in a competition to get funding for your own startup!

While training modules are being adapted to the Belarusian context and training manuals are being translated into Russian, ODB Brussels has interviewed executives of the TNU Network University who will be in charge of developing an online learning platform - Gerd Junne, Chairman of the Board of the Fund, and Vic Klabbers, Managing Director of TNU - on their views about the future of social entrepreneurship and their experience of working in different countries.

ODB: What is social entrepreneurship for you? How would you describe a social enterprise? Can you call the TNU a social enterprise and why?

Prof. Dr. Gerd Junne, the Chairman of the Board of The Network University (TNU)

Dr. Gerd Junne and Vic Klabbers: A social enterprise is an organisation that addresses social problems and does so in an effective, business-like manner. It finances its activities mainly by the sales of its products. Its purpose is not to generate profits for the enrichment of individuals, its revenues are ploughed back into its activities.

From that perspective, TNU – registered as a foundation – is a social enterprise. It addresses major development challenges, works as an effective business with minimal overheads, and does not generate profits for any individual.

ODB: What is considered to be the main trend(s) for social entrepreneurship both in the Netherlands and also worldwide?

G.J.: The main trend is an expansion of social entrepreneurship – in the Netherlands and worldwide, and there are a number of reasons for that:
First of all, the state withdraws from many areas, and civil society organizations and social enterprises have to fill the gap...  NGOs receive less subsidies and have to re-invent themselves as social enterprises.
Many people have become tired of working in traditional businesses that mainly serve to enrich a few and want to engage in activities that benefit larger groups of more disadvantaged people.
And also, young people often do not see themselves working in a traditional business, but want to apply their skills and creativity to realize social objectives.

ODB: Gerd, what do you mean by saying that the State withdraws  from many areas? Is state support for vulnerable categories of citizens shrinking?

G.J.: Yes, neoliberalism has led to cuts in many government programmes in many countries. Care for vulnerable groups is increasingly left to civil society groups, neighbours and family.

ODB:  Could you list different forms of social enterprises? Can, for instance, crowd-funding and crowd-sourcing platforms be called social enterprises?


Vic Klabbers, Managing Director of TNU

G.J. : You can categorize social enterprises by the social issues they address (like Arts, Environment, Employment, Health, Disabilities, Poverty, Development…) or by the business model that  they try to realize. Crowd-funding or crowd-sourcing platforms as such are not necessarily social enterprises. Only if they mainly collect funds for initiatives that try to solve social problems, they could be seen as social enterprises.

ODB: You' ve mentioned that they can be categorized by different business model. Could you say more words about it. How do these models of social entrepreneurship differ from one another?

G. J. : Some business models are based on higher prices for those who can afford them, which subsidize sales to people who are not able to pay much (or sometimes are not able to pay anything at all). Other business models are based on payment for social impact by government authorities. Again others  (e.g. garbage collection)  are based on fees (paid by people to get rid of their garbage) and on selling the recovered material (e.g. the plastic or metal in the waste. There are numerous different models. For instance, there is a taxi company that uses only taxis with electrical motors (to save the city’s environment) and only employs drivers above the age of 55, who otherwise would not find another employer any longer.

ODB: What are the factors/conditions necessary for a social enterprise to become successful?

G.J.: A social enterprise is an enterprise. It has to have a viable business model and has to realize sufficient income to assure continuity. The challenge is to achieve profitability, while remaining committed to solving social problems and not to be trapped in pursuing profitability for the sake of profitability .

ODB: And how not to get trapped? Could you give any tips? 

G.J.: A very important protection against the trap is extensive public recognition of excellent social entrepreneurship.  For most people, recognition is finally more important than a high salary -  because the salary often is most and foremost a means to receive recognition, -  beyond a level which is sufficient to cover normal household needs.

ODB: When and how have you arrived at the idea to start your own organization (TNU), and an e-learning platform for future social entrepreneurs? What motivated you personally to start working with social entrepreneurship?

V.K.: We started TNU in the mid-1990’s, when the expansion of the worldwide web allowed to reach groups all over the world that lacked access to quality education. Bringing people from very different backgrounds together in highly interactive programmes also contributed to a better international understanding.
The work on social entrepreneurship started with the discussion of the challenges of post-conflict societies that had gone through prolonged periods of social strife. Many social problems have remained unaddressed in these societies, while at the same time many young people remain idle. The state is not able to create more employment, and investors shy away, because the investment climate is not stable enough. Social entrepreneurship then forms an opportunity to mobilize many people for the collective engagement with social problems.

ODB:  In which countries you have been working so far, what are similarities and the peculiarities?

V.K: Courses of The Network University have been followed by people from more than 60 countries. That does not mean that we have worked in these countries.  But we assisted people (governments, NGOs, companies, individuals) working in these countries. With the programme on entrepreneurship, we started to work in Sierra Leone, then with a small group (of former refugees from Sierra Leone) in Guinea and with another small group in Ghana to test how the programme has to be adapted to the situation of a somewhat more developed country.
The situation in Sierra Leone differs dramatically from the situation in Belarus – in almost every respect.
Sierra Leone passed through a brutal civil war, was hit by Ebola, and also experienced the flooding of coastal areas last year. The level of education is extremely low (half of all entrepreneurs are illiterate), and the infrastructure (electricity, roads) is underdeveloped. So the challenges are of a quite different nature than those in other countries.

E-learning for Entrepreneurship in West-Africa - Powered by Diaspora in the Netherlands". April 2015


ODB:  Have you been working in the Eastern Europe and post-soviet space before? If yes, could you give some examples?

V. K: We have been working in this Eastern Europe and other Post-Soviet countries before. We have had (and still have) many participants from what is now called Central Europe and from former Soviet states for various online courses (for example on Human Rights Education, intercultural Dialogue, and Democratic Citizenship).
Next to that TNU has been partner in several Tempus projects with the main focus on university reform regarding the educational process and how to include the student in this process (based on the Bologna principles). In Belarus we worked with the Belarusian State University, Brest State University, and the Ministry of Education.

Vic Klabbers (to the right) at the seminar on higher education


ODB:  What could you teach a potential social entrepreneur? And is it possible to really train someone to be entrepreneurial or it is a quality you need to be born with? In Belarus, many actors who are involved in social sphere including the founders of the so-called social enterprises are far from being business-minded. Consequently their enterprises are not financially successful. Do you think it would be still possible to motivate and teach them become more business-oriented and if so, what would be your advice?

G.J. : Social entrepreneurship is no rocket science. A lot can be taught. But “knowledge” alone is never sufficient – as for all other possible occupations. “Attitudes” are important as well, and that is more difficult to convey, especially from a distance. There has to be an intrinsic motivation to “do good”, to help others.  You can stimulate that with good examples, you can hope that your own enthusiasm is contagious, but it is difficult to reach people with a different motivation. Yes, some people are more entrepreneurial  by nature or nurture than others, - but ALL can make progress in this respect.

ODB: It sounds encouraging. In this case, given, that many young people, especially in our region, are oriented first of all towards professional success rather than tackling social issues, how do you encourage this category to become SOCIAL entrepreneurs?

G.J. and V.K. : We show them, first of all, that professional success and tackling social issues can be combined. We want people to have professional success in tackling social issues. That is the very essence of social enterprise.  We also show that many professionally successful people have finally realized how “empty” a success is if it is only expressed in monetary gains. 

ODB: What are the specifics of the teaching methods through your on-line learning platform?

V.K. : The Network University uses innovative approaches to education and communication in order to integrate research and teaching, to generate knowledge that makes a difference in people’s lives. Our teaching is based on the knowledge and experience the student already has. We take students serious as experts in their own domain and stimulate them to create additional knowledge (instead of only reproducing the offered material). TNU aims to trigger an active interdisciplinary exchange of information, knowledge and practices at the international, regional and local level that are immediately applied in projects of social improvement.
This is only possible with collaborative and participative methods. These methods do not only require an investment of  considerable time and resources by the coaches but also by the students as they not only need to study the material but also transform it to knowledge that is applicable in their own environment.
 We aim to bridge the divide between academic and research institutions on the one hand and international and national governmental and non-governmental organisations and enterprises, by creating an online platform with opportunities to actively learn, interact and encounter new ways of thinking.

Since we want to produce knowledge that is immediately applied, the teaching is highly personal and takes the individual personal aims and environments into account.  It does not just give access to “one size fits all” programmes, but it tries to support individual participants in the concrete initiatives they are involved in or that they want to explore.

ODB: What are the achievements the TNU is especially proud of?

V.K.: TNU brings people from very different backgrounds together, which assures a lot of cross-sectoral, international, and cross-class learning. We helped government officials in African countries to draft better policies, and we helped starting entrepreneurs to take the first steps. TNU combines its thematic expertise with activities adapted to the specific needs of a particular target group. The result is that content is always tailor-made to suit the needs of the target group and is provided in a form appropriate for learning, debating and action. In realising our activities we have established co-operation with many institutions.

Since its start in 1999 TNU has trained thousands of students worldwide, with a particular focus on former Eastern Europe and on the so called South. We are proud of training students from remote areas who otherwise would never had the opportunity to acquire the knowledge and tools they needed in their daily practice.

ODB: In your opinion is state support necessary for the social enterprises and if yes, which forms should it take?

G.J. and V.K. : The most important forms of support would be in the form of taking existing obstacles away. There could be a lot of cooperation between social enterprises and public authorities, which would facilitate the work of both .

ODB: Does the state help social entrepreneurs in the Netherlands and if yes? What is it? Are where any tax reductions for social enterprises, any subsidies? And do you think it is important to have such benefits or do they only prevent social enterprises from using more viable business-models?

G.J.: Depending on the sector, the state does subsidize specific activities (e.g. saving energy, contributing to education, taking care of vulnerable groups, etc.)  In some areas, it would be difficult to come up with a viable business model without any subsidies.  But the subsidies cost the state less than carrying out the activities by public authorities would cost.

ODB: Social enterprises in Belarus often lack innovation. Do you think that being innovative is one of the key characteristics for a social enterprise and if yes, how would you advise Belarus to tackle this issue?

G. J. and V.K. : There can be many forms of innovation:  The innovation can be a new product or a new process. It can also be a new way of cooperating with all stakeholders. It can be by offering employment to new groups. It can even be by successfully copying an initiative that has been tried out somewhere else in the world, but not yet in Belarus. It would not necessarily have to be something totally new. But it could be new to Belarus. To realize that, a lot of antennas are desirable to scan what happens elsewhere on the globe and discuss whether something similar could make sense in Belarus as well.

Prof. Dr. Gerd Junne is the Chairman of the Board of The Network University (TNU). He held the Chair in International Relations at the University of Amsterdam for three decades and served as a guest professor at New York University (NYU).  After obtaining his PhD in Berlin, he worked as a consultant for the UN Centre on Transnational Corporations (until the Centre was integrated into UNCTAD). He lead research projects for the United Nations, FAO, ILO, the European Union, the VW Foundation, the Rathenau Institute, the German Parliament, various Dutch ministries, and the Dutch National Research Program on Air Pollution and Climate Research. He is an expert in Life Long Learning and introduced and participated in many innovative educational programmes, and sat on the Board of several NGOs, including the International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD), War Child Holland, Radio La Benevolencija Humanitarian Tools Foundation, and the African Diaspora Policy Centre in an effort to bridge the gap between academia and society and to combine academic knowledge with hands-on experience. His present involvement in the online entrepreneurship training and coaching programme grew out of his concern for the massive youth unemployment in many countries, which is the root cause for violent conflicts and many other social problems.

Vic Klabbers is Managing Director of TNU. He began his career at the University of Amsterdam by studying International Relations and Eastern European Studies. Shortly after the dissolution of the USSR he lived in Moscow where he was assistant manager setting up a Dutch travel agency.

After his study he became one of the co-founders of The Network University (TNU). Next to the daily managing of the organisation he is also involved in project coordination, course development and other educational activities. Beside educational projects he also works as a consultant on various projects related to online learning, webbased communication and development, and he facilitates workshops. In the above work areas he focuses mainly on Post-Soviet states and Africa.


The Network University ( is a Dutch foundation, registered in 1999, that offers  a platform for researchers, experts, students and professionals from diverse backgrounds, to develop and participate in research, online education, online debate and networking. Using this platform, we focus on jointly finding innovative solutions to some of today's key social and environmental challenges. TNU’s expertise is thematically embedded in the field of social and development sciences with a focus on enabling social transformation by third parties. As social entrepreneurship is one form of social transformation TNUstarted to do research on this topic and developed an online programme to facilitate both coaches and aspiring entrepreneurs.