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Social Entrepreneurs Employ Pragmatic Tools
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Social Entrepreneurs Employ Pragmatic Tools

The mainstream western media often fails to present a balanced and positive view of Iran, an emerging market filled with young and visionary social entrepreneurs (“socents”) who are actively pursuing innovative and sustainable ways to improve their society and alleviate economic, environmental and social issues.

Emboldened by the recent nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 powers, many entrepreneurs are exploring the potential to find solutions to various social challenges by identifying pragmatic tools and resources, which has culminated in creation of startups and social entrepreneurship firms throughout the country. A fast and rising social venture startup scene is hard at work behind the headlines, wrote social entrepreneur Azadeh Tajdar and Leila Piran, a Ph.D. in World Politics with focus on the Middle East, in an article published on bourseandbazaar.com

Iranian social entrepreneurs are as driven and savvy as their counterparts in San Francisco, New York, London, and Bangalore. They are constantly seeking and implementing innovative solutions, tools, and processes that achieve measurable sustainable impact, while addressing Iran’s pressing social, economic, or environmental challenges. Take Iran’s water problems, for example. According to recent statistics, 70% of Iran’s groundwater resources have been depleted. Therefore, groundwater shortages and deteriorating water quality would most likely lead to a national environmental crisis. Certainly, the government alone will not be able to address such a herculean task.

A survey was carried out by Tajdar and Piran in partnership with George Mason University in the US from January to March 2015 to map out a preliminary landscape of social entrepreneurship in Iran. Overall, more than 100 entrepreneurs from around the country responded. The findings suggest that this sector is growing rapidly and needs urgent support, nurturing, and scaling.

 Use of Technology

Iran has an estimated social entrepreneurship market of 50,000 to 75,000 active participants and 83% of Iranian social entrepreneurs are currently engaged in an initiative, organization, or startup with a social, economic, or environmental objective. About 60% believe in the use of technology towards finding more effective solutions to their modern day challenges. More than 50% of survey participants are actually pursuing the process of building and running a ‘socent’ as part of their daily job.

Women who are heavily under-represented in the survey have the highest participation rates in social enterprise startup events, weekends, and trainings.

The sector, although nascent and evolving, also faces obstacles that were highlighted in the survey in relation to the ecosystem; in particular, government red-tape, lack of regulation in favor of social enterprises, unavailability of foundations grants, impact investors, loans for social entrepreneurs, the unavailability of exchange programs, and opportunities to connect to regional and international social entrepreneurship knowledge networks.

Although some of the above-mentioned hurdles are not unique to Iran, the rise of social entrepreneurship has actually occurred surprisingly late in Iran compared to the rest of the region. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon have experienced a rise in number and quality of social enterprises.

Many Middle Eastern social entrepreneurs’ ventures have scaled across the region and Northern Africa, receiving support from institutional donors, impact investors, and international foundations as well as organizations such as Ashoka, Echoing Green, and the Unreasonable Institute.

Due to the international sanction regime and visa restrictions imposed on Iranians, many social entrepreneurs have not benefited from such outside support and opportunities for cross-pollination, and have rarely had a chance to access fellowships or exchange programs, or grant support. This puts them in an even more disadvantageous situation.

 Successful Models

Despite these obstacles, exciting and socially innovative initiatives are emerging in the country, and entrepreneurs are adapting successful models in social entrepreneurship to the local and national conditions and needs.

Among such models is Tehran Hub, a nonpolitical and nonaffiliated organization combining a comprehensive co-working space, incubator and accelerator program and is about to get launched in partnership with Amirkabir University and Samsung. The Hub is targeting young social entrepreneurs in the country, and focuses using technology and social innovation to address pressing social, economic and environmental problems, while building a resilient ecosystem for social entrepreneurship.

Other initiatives are those social entrepreneurs who are using technology and online platforms to solve social problems. For example Ladybug has boosted the participation of Iranian women in the technology and startup world through content building, community, and educational programs.

Dastadast, supports indigenous artisans in Iran with business and capacity building solutions, and offers them an ecommerce platform to improve their livelihoods.

Roozbeh Charity, based in Zanjan Province, focuses on education and promotion of waste reduction and waste separation. The charity has a unique grassroots mobilizing and hybrid model aiming to prevent environmental pollution through waste collection, and has led to a considerable number of new jobs as well as an important source of revenue for the organization.

Since Iran and the P5+1 recently reached a nuclear deal, the opportunity to collaborate with the Iranian social entrepreneurship community and empowering them to carve an effective, resilient, and strong ecosystem for social entrepreneurship has become a lucrative reality for western and Iranian diaspora investors.

 

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