What will facilitate the development of social entrepreneurship in Belarus: new laws, education or aspirations to change the world?

Text by: Alyona Lis

ODB Brussels continues to study the examples of social entrepreneurship in the world and in Belarus. Today we ask questions Maria Cheriakova, our countrywoman, who lives and works in the Netherlands, about the Ecosystem of Social Entrepreneurship. In April this year, at the 3d National Social Forum (Minsk, Belarus)  Masha presented the results of the research she conducted jointly with Olga Kapachenia, based on the open sources analysis and interviews with Belarusian entrepreneurs. The main conclusions of the research as well as its full text are available on our web-page.

Masha Cheriakova (the Netherlands), social entrepreneur, ODB consultant in social entrepreneurship 


ODB: Masha, you jointly with a colleague Olga Kapachenya have conducted a research of the EcoSystem for social entrepreneurship in Belarus? Could you say some words about it? How did you come up with an idea? Who were your target groups and what is the eco-system for social entrepreneurship as such since the word 'eco' is mostly associated with environmental issues?

Masha Cheriakova at the Festival on Economics and Social Entrepreneurship "Stairs to Success-2016" Minsk 

M.Ch. After I have co-founded an educational programme, www.SocStarter.com, for social entrepreneurs 3 years ago I realized that educating aspiring social entrepreneurs is not enough. The whole environment in which social entrepreneurs operate should be developed. You see, this whole environment in which a social entrepreneur operate is a dynamic, self-regulating network of many different types of actors. This is called an eco-system. Lets take for example the actors in the financial sector. For a social entrepreneur to get financial support is not very easy (read: almost impossible) because the financial system (banks, investors etc.) evaluates the risk and looks only at the financial benefits the enterprise will make. This means that even though social entrepreneur is educated and ready to launch her business, she might not get support from the financial sector simply because it is not ready for social entrepreneurs. While financial sector looks only at the financial performances, there are also a growing number of impact investors who look not only to the financial gain but also to the social and environmental gain. Impact investors should be also developed if we want to develop a healthy ecosystem for social entrepreneurship. This is only one example of an important actor in the ecosystem of social entrepreneurs. There are many more, such as: culture towards social entrepreneurship, regulations and benefits from the government, the business actors and the schools. So the idea of the ecosystem relates to the concept that all organisms in the environment are engaged in relationships with every other aspect (like resources and other organisms) in the environment. This is biology! 

ODB: So, what were your biggest discovery and the most important findings? And since you are based in the Netherlands, what important difference did you notice between social enterprises in your and maybe other EU countries and in Belarus?  (here I will ask some additional questions depending on what you are going to answer :)

M.Ch.: The biggest discovery, however not surprising at all was that there is almost no ecosystem in place for social entrepreneurs in Belarus. While there is somewhat an ecosystem for entrepreneurs in general, social entrepreneurship is not supported or recognized. While this is a very sad discovery, this is not something that Belarus is unique in. In the Netherlands social entrepreneurship has taken off only very recently and is still not being very stimulated by many actors. For example there is no legal entity in place for social enterprise in the Netherlands, so they have to register as a profit organization and don't have any benefits over a standard enterprise. Yet the universities and other educational organisations are focusing on providing education and financial support to social enterprises. So you could say that the ecosystem of social enterprises is slowly developing, but there is still a lot to be done also in the Netherlands.

Masha Cheriakova  (on the left) and  Marta Chernova (on the right), photo: "Гэта Беларусь, дзетка!"


ODB:  In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge for the Belarusian social entrepreneurs (the one you noticed and the one they recognize themselves)?

M.Ch.: The biggest need right now is to offer aspiring social entrepreneurs the right education and tools to start a profitable social enterprise. The biggest challenge here is to educate social entrepreneurs in selling and marketing. Social entrepreneurs very often possess the passion, the understanding and the drive to start a social business but often they are terrible at selling their business. So here is the challenge, to provide these social entrepreneurs with the right skillset: how to market and sell your business. A deeper challenge often lies in the believe in your product. While their motivation is often to help vulnerable people or the environment, they often neglect the part that they have to sell a qualitatively high product or service. Believing that their social story will do the trick to convince the customers to buy their product. Here is the biggest challenge in my opinion. To teach social entrepreneurs to firstly build a worthy product/service and only use their story to top the selling pitch.

I believe social entrepreneurs also recognize this challenge, however not sure if they fully understand the big need for marketing and selling. Increasing the understanding would be a good start. 

ODB: One of the criteria for social entrepreneurship in the EU is innovation, but Belarusian social enterprises can hardly be called innovative? How important innovations are for social enterprises?

M.Ch.: Yes innovation is a big characteristics for the 'famous' social entrepreneurs. Just like the Steve Jobs and Tim Cook's for only profit business, social entrepreneurs that innovate get a lot of attention. Examples are: … Even though Innovation is a very important element for social entrepreneurs it is definitely not the most crucial one. The definition of social entrepreneurs: 'Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society's most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change'. Implies that all social entrepreneurs have to tackle with new and innovative ideas major social issues. If we follow this definition, there will be only handful social entrepreneurs left per country. I believe that social entrepreneurs will cause innovation in some degree with any solution they will provide. As the core concept of social entrepreneurs is to offer a solution to a problem that is not being addresses by the governmental or business sector. Therefore making it a new and innovative solution. If we focus too much on innovation building, we will dismiss and scare away many potential social entrepreneurs who won't see themselves as visionaries who want to change the world.

ODB:  What differences do you think are based on the economic model currently existing in Belarus and which have deeper roots in the mentality? In general can Belarusians be called an entrepreneurial nation for now? Have social entrepreneurs in the Netherlands (or in the EU in general) experienced similar difficulties as their Belarusian counterparts and how the ecosystem helped to solve them? - A few words (sentences) about each component (the media, education, business companies, the government…)

Entrepreneurship lies in the Dutch culture and mentality. This has of course to do with the Dutch trading history that is still present in today's entrepreneurs. I believe the ecosystem for entrepreneurs in the Netherlands is very well developed because of this foundation. In Belarus however it is a bit different story. Belarusians in the last decades did not experience a strong trading or entrepreneurial culture. At least not an open one. For this reason a very important element in the ecosystem is lacking: the culture to support entrepreneurship. In the Netherlands entrepreneurs and businessmen are regarded as inspirational and good examples. There the ecosystem has helped to build a strong entrepreneurial spirit. For example the open culture towards entrepreneurship is causing a big acceptance and inspiration towards becoming an entrepreneurs in the Netherlands. You hear often stories of entrepreneurs who started a company because someone they know proved to be a good example. Another example is how the Dutch media reports on entrepreneurship: with success business stories, with elaborated interviews and positive connotations to it. The financial benefits also exist and business sector is often also supporting small and medium entrepreneurs.

ODB: What needs to be done for the Belarusians to overcome their fear of becoming entrepreneurs? Could it be double or even multi-track recommendations (to the society, the government, the media, big commercial companies, the closest environment such as family and friends, and entrepreneurs themselves)? What would be your practical advice?

M.Ch. I believe that everything starts with good examples. When handful entrepreneurs create a successful business, this should be followed and celebrated by all the actors within the ecosystem. They should become examples to other entrepreneurs. Media should write about them, Universities should invite them for lectures, the government officials should mention them in their speeches, you get the point. Take for example Viber and Wargaming or the social enterprise Maesens.by and put them on the pedestal. In turn, these organizations should take the responsibility to guide other entrepreneurs.  Share their stories, become mentors and build on the development of entrepreneurship. I believe by starting to take pride in good examples, entrepreneurial spirit will follow.  


ODB: In the recommendation section of your research you say that it is necessary to teach social entrepreneurship already at school, colleges and universities. But how should it be taught to encourage young Belarusians to become successful entrepreneurs? Today, there are many entrepreneurship courses in colleges and schools however their mechanical inclusion in school curricula may not solve the problem. What can be done in this respect?  What was the experience of the Netherlands and did you see successful models of such courses in Belarus (both in formal and informal education)?        
M.Ch. Schools should be able to teach their students about (social) entrepreneurship and help build an entrepreneurial culture. This is mainly a governmental level of change that involves ministry of education to collaborate with educational entrepreneurial organization, to jointly promote curricula that include entrepreneurship. Educators can creatively reinforce these lessons by, for instance, creating competitions in which students present business plans to a panel of experts, who perhaps are successful entrepreneurs. These types of inter-school events can be great motivators and create group spirit among students and teachers alike. At high school level it is equally important to educate the teachers on (social) entrepreneurship. Organizing seminars on this topic would be an option.

Masha Cheriakova advises to high school students during the training on social entrepreneurship in the frames of the Festival "Stairs to Success-2016" (Minsk)

At the university level, the goal is more specific: to provide more students with the desire, skills and knowledge to start a company. To this end, more universities should establish major and minor degrees in entrepreneurship that cover topics such as business planning, problem solving, project management, risk management, finance and accounting. This coursework might include small, specialized seminars in which students work closely with a professor to create a business plan that is presented to angel investors or VC firms at the end of the term for possible financing. Even students who are not seeking a major or minor in entrepreneurship could one day benefit from these courses. With this in mind, universities might consider altering the requirements for some existing degrees (e.g. business and engineering) to include a few entrepreneurship-related courses (the same way an ethics course is required of business graduates). Outside of the classroom, universities could support entrepreneurship clubs in which professors, business managers or established entrepreneurs present insights and training.

ODB:  Also, shall the younger generation be the only focus for social entrepreneurship educators and enablers or the focus should be wider? Could you give an example when a social enterprise was started and successfully running by elderly people?

M.Ch.: In my experience social entrepreneurs are often people aged between 25 and 45 years. Nonetheless there are I am sure good examples of elderly people who start a social enterprise. While elderly people are often seen as a target group that needs support, I am confident that this target group with so much experience, knowledge, time and energy should be considered not only part of the problem but also part of the solution.

ODB: In your opinion, how important is it to have special laws that regulations for social enterprises?

M.Ch.: I think in general it is very important that there are special legislations that benefit social entrepreneurs. Such as a special legal entity in place and some tax benefits. However I consider this a longterm process that will hopefully be implemented once there is a sufficient amount of social entrepreneurs who need this benefit. I believe that social entrepreneurs should focus for the short term on starting a social business and becoming independent and successful.

ODB:   If you had a meeting with the Prime Minister, what would you say to persuade him that it is necessary to support the development of social entrepreneurship in Belarus?

M.Ch.: Not sure if my standard answer would persuade the Prime minister: To enable individuals to drive change in their communities and take ownership of their future.
Therefore I would say that working government leaders should collaborate with social entrepreneurs to leverage public and private resources and generate transformative, cost-effective solutions to the most challenging social problems facing the nation.

ODB:  And finally, what would be your advice for a potential social entrepreneur in Belarus?

M.Ch.: Hold on to your idea, search for people in this area who are already taking actions or would like to and most importantly get yourself educated! This year in November we will start a training program for aspiring social entrepreneurs. Maybe this would be a good opportunity to educate yourself, get mentored and work with other social entrepreneurs. In October the call for applications will be announced so keep in eye on ODB website!

Authors of the research:   Masha Cheriakova and Olga Kopachenia. Belarus. No BIZ as USUAL

Masha Cheriakova (the Netherlands) - Consultant with the ODB Brussels  on the issues of social entrepreneurship, author of the project and the book Heta Belarus, Dzietka! , writer, smm-manager at the Dutch start-up in environment, recycling, Bin-Bang, consultant with the project Edgeryders, work as a consultant on innovations for UNDP Belarus, one of the co-founders of the international training programme for social entrepreneurs Socstarter Belarus.

ODB Brussels