Social start-ups bloom in wake of Arab Spring

Social enterprise gains ground among Middle Eastern entrepreneurs

An increasing number of Middle Eastern entrepreneurs are creating businesses that seek to tackle the region’s social problems while also turning a profit, the founder of a Dubai platform to support social entrepreneurship has said.

Civil unrest has persuaded more start-ups to integrate social returns into their corporate models, said Fereshteh Amarsy, a trend that may eventually see this hybrid style of business move into the mainstream.

“Social enterprise is on the rise since the Arab Spring,” Amarsy, founder of the Dubai-based Social Enterprise Week, told Philanthropy Age. “Social gains concern everyone; it concerns all of society. It should be a normal part of business – we call it business as unusual – being aware of that triple bottom line.

“But segregation of traditional capitalism and social enterprise is, at the moment, still an issue. It’s a very new idea that people are getting used to.”

The concept of social entrepreneurship has gained visibility in recent years. While there is little data on the value of the global social investment market, initiatives such as the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, a sister organisation to the World Economic Forum, have helped endorse the idea of using business-led solutions to fix developmental problems.

In the Arab world, widespread unemployment has encouraged the region’s youth to embrace entrepreneurship as a path to employment. An online survey by Stanford University in 2012 found around 40 per cent of 12,518 respondents in the GCC, Levant and North Africa expressed interest in being self-employed. Some 44 per cent were keen to work in the field of social entrepreneurship, but cited difficulties in registering non-traditional business models as a barrier to their plans.

Finding a working definition of social entrepreneurship that builds on regional business culture will be key to overcoming this hurdle, said Amarsy. “Finding the right words in Arabic and integrating that with what already exists, that is something that needs to be done in the region, for the region,” she said, noting that the concept does not fit neatly into existing regulatory frameworks, which can make securing a business licence harder.

“My experience is based in the UAE [where] you can establish yourself easily as a business. But if you want to set up as a social enterprise, then a licence for that model doesn’t exist.”

Amarsy was speaking ahead of this year’s Social Enterprise Week, which begins in Dubai on Tuesday. The platform, a week-long campaign of workshops, panel discussions and networking events, aims to bring together budding entrepreneurs, thought leaders and investors to debate and collaborate on social ventures.

“Social Enterprise Week gathers people from different communities and Dubai is a great city for [the event] because it is so cosmopolitan,” she said. “Our goal is to raise awareness and build the social entrepreneurship community. Hopefully, after this year’s event we can define what kind of platform we become and how best to serve this community."