An inspiring encounter in Kazakhstan

One of the things I love most about working with social entrepreneurs is their ability to surprise you. You think you’ve heard all the best ideas, or someone has moved you in a way you’ll never experience again but then someone comes along and leaves you in total awe. I just had this experience when I was in Almaty, Kazakhstan a few weeks ago. I was over there with the British Council and Chevron to share lessons from the UK social enterprise space and one of my meetings took me to meet a young social entrepreneur, Eldos.

I arrived at 5pm to meet Eldos in the lobby of his hotel. He’d traveled from his region of Kazakhstan to Almaty and was also due to speak at the conference the next day. He proceeded to tell me his story…

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People-powered change in Thailand (and Bethnal Green)

[A final blog post, for now, from Thor who has been working with us the past couple of months, and will be sorely missed!]

After 2 months with SSE
and a second tour abroad with the organisation, I am now leaving for a
much-longed for break in Thailand. One cannot truly make an exit without some
wise words though – and I wanted to share with you a story from the country to
which I am travelling to.  


I think the most
profound educational experience I have gained from SSE is one that (ironically)
did not take place in Bethnal Green. Having travelled to a country like Thailand
before, I have become acutely aware of the fact that social entrepreneurship and
social enterprise is needed in most countries. In Thailand there is a desperate
need for improved sanitation, basic health care facilities, and most profoundly,
help for those who fall outside the system.


Recently a friend of mine made me
aware of a particularly heart-breaking example. Two years past, a small group of
students from my college in Minnesota spent a summer volunteering at the
McKaen Rehabilitation Center, an entire village where men and women who
either had leprosy or struggled with recovering from the many side effects of
the disease, could live together and exist without the fear of being rejected.
In Thailand many are ostracised from their homes when they get the disease,
leaving them with no support to recover. McKaen had developed a large area for
the village inhabitants, who supported themselves through farming and creating
various products that were sold at the local market. The roads were paved, each
patient lived comfortably in a small house, and people were allowed to be
themselves, despite appearance or disability. However, as times got rough,
McKaen began to struggle and had to move the centre (which was later turned into
a retirement home) and was forced to ask many of the recovering patients to


Where would you
go, if your family, home and medical facility all rejected you?
Most of the
recovering McKaen patients (recovering most times mean learning to live with a
severe disability for the rest of your life) had nowhere to go, so they decided to stick
together and attempt to find a new home. After a local teacher donated some
land, and two former McKaen employees joined them on a volunteer basis, the
group decided to create a new home on their own. In a way they were all social
entrepreneurs, but sadly not by their own choice. When my friend returned to
help again she was shocked and moved to tears by the new conditions, only to
find out that one of the patients had taken his own life in despair. Living
together in a couple of small huts, the patients share a small plot of land and
are not able to produce anything to support themselves.   Their
caretakers volunteer, but without any support or training, are unable to improve
the conditions for their severely disabled


Despite these
challenges, these men and women smiled, and they went about their day as best as
possible. When a man can help build his home while missing half of his body, he
must possess a true drive to change his own life. What him and his fellow
co-habitants need is not money, but skills-training and help to facilitate ways
of creating sustainable income. If only there was an initiative that could
empower the former residents of the McKaen Foundation.       


In the last few weeks I
have often pondered if I would want to aim for a career in the third sector.
Having heard the story from Chiang Mai I am reminded more than ever that if
there ever was potential for a movement to grow on a transnational basis, it is
social enterprise. As obvious at it might seem for SSE staff, students, fellows
and other affiliates that development should focus on people and
skills-building, this is not necessarily yet a widespread notion.

In other
words, I am very happy to have worked for an organisation that gets it.

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Podcasts and Pendolinos

For some reason, no matter the amount of forethought and planning, my travel around the UK (to support existing SSEs or to develop new ones) tends to come in batches. So this week was Manchester and Liverpool back-to-back, and next week is Belfast and Cornwall back-to-back. Apart from taking the outstanding pile of reading with me, and the ubiquitous laptop, I tend to load up on relevant podcasts for some (hopefully) interesting listening to pass the time.

Over the last couple of days, whilst leaning with the Virgin Pendolino round corners, I’ve listened to the following:

– Evan Davis’ The Bottom Line: simple, but effective: talking to 3 CEOs each week about their business, and business in general. Recommended

– A few episodes from HBR’s IdeaCast, which varies for me, both in terms of sound quality (phone call interviews are tough to hear) and becoming overwhelmed by its own jargon (“so what we’re talking about here are ways of hedging companythink?”) but there are good bits, including one professor on the CEO within and succession planning (mp3).

– The Times’ Twelve Business Ideas that are Changing the World, which this week featured Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer talking about their Plan A CSR strategy. OK-ish.

– A couple of episodes from Grassroots Channel from Podnosh, which were both great and put the others largely to shame, considering (I assume) the budget and support is that much smaller.

I listened to the Grassroots episode on lobbying advice in preparation for my workshop on the same subject with social entrepreneurs in Manchester (see my powerpoint here), and it was well produced and structured. Loved the subtitle: “the dark arts demystified” (I got an image of Dumbledore telling Harry Potter, “Right. Now we’ve done spells and broomstick technique, it’s time for the hard stuff: lobbying”). I ended up incorporating elements of it in my session, particularly around calling lobbying another form of persuasion, just planned persuasion of those in (or with) power.

I also enjoyed the session from the launch of the Big Green Challenge, because it didn’t just act as glorified PR (or greenwash) for the event, but questioned it and reflected some dissenting voices. It made for an interesting dialogue and conversation between those involved. The same couldn’t be said, for example, of Stuart Rose’s quasi-lecture which, whilst informative about some of the numbers to do with M&S’s Plan A, suffered from having no challenges to it. It sounded over-prepared and scripted, and I learned little that I didn’t know already; demonstrates how the medium is suited to dialogue and conversation. I was longing for Podnosh’s Nick Booth to chip in with some questions about his private jet, continued overpackaging, shareholder reaction and so forth, but longed in vain. The campaign for the interview, or a better conversation, starts here.

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Beijing: everyone a (social) entrepreneur?

So the SSE blog is on tour at present in China. Having acclimatised a bit to Beijing (first lesson: ‘lane discipline’ doesn’t translate; second lesson: the green man doesn’t necessarily mean you are safe to walk), I met up with the good people at the Fuping Development Institute (currently in Chinese only: English version coming soon). Big thanks to Jaff and Hu for finding me in a taxi by a bridge looking lost, and for a good chat about what they do at FDI. Looking at their work with migrant workers, grassroots NGOs and environmental leadership (to name but three projects) is enough to induce a healthy batch of humility and not a little wonder. To achieve all this in a country moving so fast, which is raising so many problems and challenges…and to do it retaining a sense of normalcy and humour; inspiring stuff.

Their work, and that of other local organisations they support, embodies the attitude of the social entrepreneur who sees an opportunity for change where others see a problem or obstacle. There’s also an amazing buzz and dynamism about the place, with hutongs full of small stores and cycles packed with fresh fruit and vegetables being pedalled (and peddled) along the way. Harnessing that entrepreneurial spirit and determination, and seizing the opportunities amidst the change could mean social entrepreneurship has a big part to play in the future here.

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Campaigning success: a new tube station!

Chrissie Townsend is a social entrepreneur of amazing persistence and ability. Since completing the SSE programme a few years ago, Chrissie, and the Teviot Action Group she founded and runs, have gone from strength to strength.

Whilst we may bask in the achievements of a new website or a well-received report, TAG has been warmly welcoming the start of work on something they had long campaigned for: a new tube station. According to the Tower Hamlets Recorder’s latest article, the campaign has been going on for 19 years. The new Langdon Park stop on the DLR will plug a big gap in the network, and serve people on nearby estates and schools.

And such transport links can massively affect regeneration of an area. As Chrissie puts it herself: "[The station] will help bring along the new homes and
businesses that we need so much in this area."

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