GCC social enterprises take aim at $1m prize

Sahar Wahbeh's startup Dumyé wins GCC round of social enterprise competition The Venture 

Social entrepreneurs in the Gulf have a shot at claiming a share of $1 million in funding through The Venture, a global competition targeting startups with a social purpose.

Now in its second year, The Venture finds candidates through a series of regional competition rounds, taking in the GCC, and culminating in a global final. Regional finalists also take part in an accelerator week, where they benefit from access to expert entrepreneurs and business leaders, all offering advice, insight and mentoring for the fledgling businesses, before the final pitch.

“The [accelerator week] process was cool because it removed you from your comfort zone and put you in a space to just learn,” said Sahar Wahbeh, founder of Dumyé and winner of the GCC round of The Venture in 2015. “They had all these amazing talented people who are really great at one specific thing sharing those skills with us.”

Wahbeh’s business makes personalised rag dolls, providing work for underprivileged women, while also running creative doll-making workshops for orphans in countries around the Middle East.

An area where The Venture had a pivotal influence on her work was in the measurement of impact, a challenge faced by many social entrepreneurs.

“We measure how many children we’re able to reach and how many hours of work we can give women,” she said. “But measuring the real emotional change or evolution of a child that goes through one of our workshops is something that I hadn’t really thought of. We are going to put parameters in place to test how we could measure how successful we really are in the workshops in doing what we want to do, which is providing a sense of relief and an outlet for these kids.”

Workshops for some 700 orphans in Egypt, pencilled in for April next year, will be Wahbeh’s first opportunity to implement ideas that resulted from her Venture experience. She hopes that as her company puts in parameters to measure and understand the impact of its work the resulting data may also help to fine-tune the content of the workshops themselves.

While measuring impact is a core challenge for social entrepreneurs, others abound, including legal recognition. GCC economies typically only recognise businesses as for-profit or charities, with no space in between, making day-to-day business trickier and funding hard to come by for unrecognised social enterprises.

“It’s such a nascent concept for this part of the world, there is a huge consumer and leadership awareness deficit about social entrepreneurship,” said Soushiant Zanganephour, global advisor for The Venture and member of the GCC judging panel.

“The kinds of problems that social entrepreneurs tend to focus on are quite local and unscalable. They are working on local economic development challenges trying to integrate disadvantaged nationals into the economic opportunities of their country. There are much larger challenges to be focusing their attention on, challenges that require scale and efficiency.”

Zanganephour believes competitions like The Venture, with its headline-grabbing prize pool and global reach, can boost awareness of social entrepreneurship, thus tackling some of the challenges its proponents face.

“It’s not just another social enterprise fund,” he said. “It’s a mainstream commercial business that has mainstream contacts and clients, and mainstream tentacles into the real world. If it can help people better understand this whole concept it’s a huge win for the movement.”

The prospect of risk-free finance will lure many, but there are other benefits in the competition process too. Zanganephour believes it makes the entrepreneurs think more broadly about their work and refine their business model. He sees these and the networking benefits of speaking to other entrepreneurs as ‘absolutely crucial’ to making a difference between lifestyle enterprises and those that are high-growth and scalable.

“The exposure just really changes the way you think about business,” he said. “The seeds were planted in a lot of those people. They walked away considering their impact models, their approach, the technology they used, significantly rethinking their models to make them more efficient and directed toward solving a problem.”

Entries for this year’s edition of The Venture close on 15 December, with the competition’s pre-final accelerator week set to take place at the end of the first quarter of 2016.