For a social enterprise, how to balance social good with the realities of business?

By Kevin McSpadden

“I felt sort of empty.”

This is how Ravi Agarwal, Founder and CEO of engageSPARK, explained his motivation for building a platform with a key tenet of promoting social good in the world.

With the mission statement of, “Our vision is a world where any motivated person has the economic opportunities they need to step out of poverty and reach for their dreams,” engageSPARK uses SMS and voice alerts to help individuals build mobile social impact campaigns regardless of Internet connectivity.

Agarwal, also a Limited Partner at 500 startups, said he was having the ‘Silicon Valley’ experience — focussing more on self-improvement and personal experience.

“I realized I did not have meaning; doing things to help others. Maybe it is time do what I always wanted to do, which was help alleviate poverty,” he said, Speaking at Echelon Asia 2016 in Singapore.

Citing the reality that in the developing world, two-thirds of people have no access to Internet, and there is an additional 15 per cent of the population that only accesses it occasionally (like the occasional SIM top-up or trip to an Internet Café).

engageSPARK is a social good company, but it is not an NGO, which means balancing the desire to run a philanthropic business with the obligation to shareholders. The idea is to build what Agarwal calls the ‘GE of poverty’ in which profits are re-invested into other parts of the company to build a larger whole.

“Our vision — we are not there yet — is to use our profits from commercial customers to subsidise non-profit customers,” he said.

In regards to investors, it is especially important to partner with firms that share a similar vision. Certain investors may be money-focussed with the potential return as the only goal. However, that is not every firm and it is possible to find investors whose focus is the ‘mission’.

“That is where the balance comes in. How do you balance the capitalist needs of investors with a passion that scales. Because if we do not take investment we will limit our impact,” Agarwal said.

If the goal is to help 1 million people instead of 10,000, outside capitalistic-minded investment may be required.

Finally, Agarwal appealed to startups to incorporate social good missions into their companies.

“There are not enough entrepreneurs doing tech for good. You do not need to dedicate your whole business. I have been challenging entrepreneurs — Instead of waiting, why not do things with your product that can do good today?”

It is a message every startup, investor, corporation, entrepreneur and tech writer can take to heart.


This article, entitled “for a social enterprise, how to balance social good with the realities of business?” originally appeared on e27.

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

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