To be honest, I had never heard about the term ‘social enterprise’ before I joined USE. My initial idea of it being some sort of charity shops made me just unconcerned (Shame on me..). Well, up till now, social enterprise remains unfamiliar to most of China. So what is it then? A social enterprise is a business with a social mission. Its profits will be principally reinvested in the business for the social objectives that it pursues, rather than distributed to its shareholders. If you were to look around, you would probably notice that social enterprise operates in almost every industry in UK. Well known examples include the Big Issue, Innocent drinks, Fair trade and the Phone co-op. With a focus on serving the community, social enterprise in UK has transformed the welfare system and stimulated local development. Brilliant impacts, sounds good. The next question will be: is this novel business model replicable? If so, what about in the context of China?
Here is some background knowledge. China’s early stage social enterprises started to flourish after 2008 Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan. The government and organisations’ post-disaster efforts have provided a fertile ground for social enterprise to grow. Soon after in 2009, the British Council launched its long-term “Skills for Social Entrepreneurs” training program for social sector leaders in China. Due to the joint effort by Chinese government and the British Council, “social entrepreneurship” has gradually become a new favoured sector. A famous example would be the Canyou Group, a high-tech company with headquarters in Shenzhen. It provides workshops and centralised employment solutions for disabled persons. To date, Canyou has established subsidiary companies in 11 provinces, employing over 3,700 individuals, 95% of whom are disabled.
What is the future prospect of social enterprise in China? Immature and rapidly growing market is a good sign. Moreover, the growth in impact investment institutions and the development of social enterprise facilities will indeed catalyse the growth. The local governments have shown their attitude by supporting the construction of regional social impact investment parks. Social enterprise consultancy advisory agencies emerged rapidly to offer individuals and organisations greater accessibility to funding opportunities. After all, social enterprises contribute to social cohesion and local development, there is nothing to lose.
International collaborations needed? Absolutely. Chinese social enterprises are still in their early development stage. It is strategic to share inspirations and operation models from overseas, and then innovate to localise the process. From the other point of view, as consumers increasingly expect businesses to act in a socially responsible way, overseas companies could tap on the growing Chinese social enterprise market to forge partnerships with ethical suppliers.
If you have any idea on China UK entrepreneurship collaboration (not limited to social enterprise), here is an opportunity for you. Check here for more information about the business venture involving the UK and China.