5 Things Social Entrepreneurs Taught Me About Making a Difference

When I was a child, I wanted to change the world. Back then I thought if I would just wish for the world to become a better place, it would happen.

Then I grew up.

Not long after my graduation, I started working for a Think Tank in mainland China to encourage debates on freedom and liberty, peace, and justice. I felt my work made a difference. But there was always so much more I wanted to see accomplished, and after five years in Shanghai and Beijing, this is how I felt.

Burned out and disillusioned.

I wanted to be that child again, believing in the world to become a better place and decided to take a fresh look at social impact. I started #impact Podcast where each week I interview incredible change-makers based in Hong Kong.

This is what I learned so far.

1. Following your passion is terrible advice.

In the social impact discussion, there tends to be a lot of talk about passion. However, more important variables are often overlooked. How do I build a financially sustainable business and is there a demand for the services I provide? Which social issue am I trying to solve? What skill sets do I have that allow me to reach my goals? These are just a few of the questions the social entrepreneurs featured on #impact Podcast ask themselves.

Speaking to them I quickly learned, it is not enough to be passionate about a cause, although, of course, it does not harm to have that drive. There is a fire in the social entrepreneur's eyes I get to interview that is contagious, and I just feel energised listening to them. However, there is only so much that passion can do. Your impact can only go as far as your funds will take you.

2. Sell sell sell. And don't feel bad about it.

The most successful social enterprises have come up with innovative business models that challenge the status quo. Charge hotels for taking their trash, why not? Like Clean the World founder Shawn Seipler told me in Episode #10. At first, hotels would not want to pay for the services that Clean the World offered but today they list hotel groups like The Sands, Sheraton and The Venetian as their partners. It was incredible to hear how Shawn started out cooking the first batches of recycled soap in his garage. Today they are running production sites all over the globe.

"I will tell you definitively the more you will be able to have financial strength, the more impact you can drive." Shawn Seipler advises fellow changemakers.

3. The impact question is the million dollar question.

If you are working in the social impact sector you will always need to ask yourself how your organisation can be accountable to the cause you are working towards. I used to write impact reports to the funders of the Think Tank I worked for in China. It would take me hours to answer one single question of that impact questionnaire. It was frustrating. I felt no words or numbers could ever give the work credit. After all, how do you measure mindset changes? But it is integral to raise the impact question, no matter how difficult it is to answer. Interviewing change-makers made me realise even more how crucial it is for every organisation to find and define their impact indicators and stay accountable to them.

4. Being emotionally in control is important.

Entrepreneurship is a roller coaster ride, and although you might expect running into challenges, some things might take you by surprise. Xania Wong, Founder of JOBDOH, shared in Episode #8 why having a high EQ is so important for running a business. Her relationships were suffering because she used to take her struggles at work back home. Being conscious of switching off now and then to re-energize yourself are important for your own and consequently also for your business's sake. That is easier said than done though and it might be even more difficult for social entrepreneurs.

The motivation for their work comes from somewhere deep inside of them, like my talk in Episode #6 with Jamie Chiu, Founder of The Brightly Project showed. Impact Entrepreneurs feel a deep urge of making a difference and a healthy dissatisfaction with how business has been run in the past. They are burning for their goals, but it takes caution not to get emotionally burned out along the way.

5. Sometimes it is okay not to have a plan and just try something out.

I often speak to founders who are just setting up their social enterprises. Starting out takes guts, and it can be overwhelming. In Episode #2 Pol Fabrega, Co-Founder of Rooftop Republic, shared that they did not have a clear business plan and strategy when they started testing their model.

Today Rooftop Republic is running impactful urban farming workshops all over Hong Kong.

Lavine Hemlani, Founder of Accelerate who I spoke to in Episode #11, just ran his first coding bootcamp empowering underrepresented groups to take charge of their career with a zero tuition until hired model. He drafted his idea in a Google document, and only nine weeks later I witnessed his first 16 students studying at a co-working space in Hong Kong. You never know what your idea can turn into, but you have to take that first step.

My inner child was relieved to find out, that it is indeed possible to make a difference with these lessons learned.

  • Don't just follow your passion but instead get amazingly good at selling your impactful idea, services and products.

  • Define and stay accountable to the impact you are trying to make, but at the same time take care of yourself and don’t get burned out.

  • Most importantly, you need to take that first step of turning your idea into reality and keep learning and growing along the way.

As scary as it might be, it is worth it.


Regina Larko is producer and host of #impact Podcast, an interview series featuring changemakers in Hong Kong. Hear what drives them, how they started out in the first place and what advice they have for the impact community.

#impact Podcast is released weekly and is available for subscription on iTunes and many other Podcast Directories.  Join the conversation at www.hashtagimpact.com, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.