Mistakes of a Social Entrepreneur
This month marks our 10th anniversary as a social enterprise. On February 4, we celebrated our achievements and successes with staff, clients and donors at a big party in Phnom Penh, as well as online. And we invite you to download our e-book “The Confidence to Dream”, in which several of our graduates tell their stories in their own words. Here on Social Edge, we will also share some of the things we would do differently, if only…
Digital Divide Data (DDD) creates jobs for talented youth in Cambodia, Laos and Kenya by delivering business process outsourcing services to clients. Working in this enterprise, while attending university, empowers our staff with the skills and experience they need to lift themselves out of poverty. We are now employing nearly 1,000 staff.
When I reflect on the past decade, I often joke that our current board of directors would have never approved the plans we used to start-up ten years ago! Since then, we have taken countless missteps. Over the next few weeks, I would like to share some of those mistakes—and what we’ve learned. It’s a bit easier after ten years to talk about failure, but I hope some of you will be inspired to share what’s not working in your organizations. In my experience, acknowledging what we’re doing wrong has been the first step towards improvement. I’ll start with a few—and then let’s engage in a dialogue about these and others.
Dream Big, but Think Realistically
When we started in Phnom Penh, DDD employed 20 youth. When people asked me about the difference we were making, I told them it was huge—that our impact on those young people’s lives was infinite. But we were ambitious. In 2003, we made a plan to open new offices every year. Once we realized the complexity of managing operations across offices in Phnom Penh and Battambang, Cambodia and Vientiane, Laos, it took seven years to launch our next office in Nairobi, Kenya!
Focus on Whom You Can Help
Initially, DDD was ready to give a job to nearly anyone who walked in the door and could type. We took support from a donor to work with a group of young women who were vulnerable from their experience being trafficked, without knowing much about this population. While we worked tirelessly to provide support to help them stabilize their lives, their level of education didn’t prepare them for the type of jobs we had at DDD. We helped them find jobs that fit their skills—and established criteria of high school graduation for new recruits.
Hire Ahead of the Curve
For the first three years, my colleague and co-founder, Jaeson Rosenfeld and I, sold all the client work we did at DDD. In our early years, we found great volunteers and made a few hires of bright, passionate people—but with no direct experience in our business. Our early team did amazing things. And, now, as I see the value that experienced staff brings, I wish we had found a way to hire talent like this earlier.
Food for thought:
- As social enterprises, we are often resource challenged; how can we collectively benefit from sharing our experiences about what works and what doesn’t?
- What have been your challenges in expanding operations, hiring experienced staff and defining your target audience?
- If you could turn back time in your social enterprise, what would you do differently?
- What’s the “best” mistake your organization made; the one that you learned the most from?
Join Jeremy Hockenstein, co-founder and CEO of Digital Divide Data, in the conversation. And share your mistakes and your victories!