|27 May 2016|
The players of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq were epic social entrepreneurs before it was cool. Not because we turned a profit (we didn’t), or monetarised our social return on investment (we couldn’t). No, we were social entrepreneurs because we had antagonistic assets in abundance. Such aspects of an enterprise would, under normal circumstances, be seen as a burden, barrier or hindrance. However, in the hands of a social entrepreneur, they can not only be turned into a business advantage, but also lie at the core of the enterprise’s raison d’être.
Take Specialisterne, the majority of whose employees live on the autism spectrum. Their fastidious attention to detail and focus on repetitive tasks makes them ideal business consultants for software testing, programming and data-entry in public and private sectors. The company operates worldwide to achieve its goal of one million jobs for people with autism. By marketing the unique benefits of this marginalised group, they utilise the power of hidden talents and turn social expectations on their head.
For my Iraqi musicians, many of whom had no common tongue and were marginalised from Iraqi culture and each other, communicating side by side through music became their strength. It may not seem so, but music in the new Iraq could lead to disapproval, even punishment. A love of music was dangerous yet powerful enough to become their antagonistic asset.
If such assets are thin on the ground, they can be developed, as in Bangura Bags. Here, Danish designers teamed up with Alfred Bangura in Sierra Leone to turn African fabrics and used bicycle tyres into highly durable designer bags for the global market, using local tailors and the pedal power of their 1960s Singer sewing machines. They focus on teaching new skills, giving hope and ambition to otherwise deprived people.
Similarly, Sistema Scotland targets social hotspots such as Raploch, Torry and Govanhill, boosting the resilience, schoolwork and confidence of local kids through music. With my orchestra in Iraq, teaching the unfamiliar skill of making chamber music opened everyone up to the possibility of creating their own ensembles and concerts in Iraq that bridged sectarian, gender and ethnic divides. Everyone’s ability to work in teams and coach each other also helped sustain and foster mutual support between the annual summer courses.
The third approach to developing antagonistic assets is to simplify. Often called “frugal innovation”, we reduce the complexity of a product by removing all extraneous features for a new environment. Lifestraw, initially developed by Vestergaard Frandsen for third world consumers, guarantees a durable product that produces 1000 litres of drinkable water with no chemicals, moving parts or electrical components. Just like Bangura Bags’ pedal driven sewing machines or the Iraqi musicians’ classical instruments, removing the reliance on unpredictable electricity supplies becomes an asset, not a disadvantage.
Finally, we can always create the demand for antagonistic assets. Here, the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq came into its own. Our story, classical musicians from a war-torn land, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, inspired huge support and media attention. But it wasn’t always so. Our first year, 2009, had us hunting for news editors who would break from reporting violence in Iraq and dare to air a positive story. Nobody wanted to know; nobody that is, except Reporting Scotland. From that one report, we built our media profile on our personal stories and hope for the future of Iraq. The orchestra’s isolation became our exclusivity, our location and lives exotic. Our perceived internal strife became reconciliation and our visits abroad gained us essential access to teachers and instruments, whilst pioneering cultural diplomacy.
Meanwhile, the tailors at Bangura Bags still sign each bag personally on an individually designed inside label, one even giving his phone number in case any of his clients ever “come to Sierra Leone and want to visit.” These touches, all part of the strategy, build client loyalty and closeness with the beneficiaries of the social enterprise. Building the story is possibly the most powerful of all the antagonistic assets, but as the above examples show, the drive towards innovating high quality, marketable products not only sets social entrepreneurship apart from charity and corporate social responsibility, but proves vital in sustaining empowerment of marginalised people.