BEIRUT: Entrepreneurs from across the country gathered this week to hear a talk by Peter Holbrook, who is leading the charge to push investment in social enterprise globally in his role as Chief Executive of Social Enterprise U.K. Holbrook is in Lebanon to assist the British Embassy in the launch of its SoUK.LB project, which aims to further the growth and reach of the sector within the country.
Holbrook held meetings Monday with the finance and economy ministers to argue for the potential of social enterprise to create positive development in Lebanon.
After his talk, titled “Promoting Social Enterprise: the U.K.’s Experience,” Holbrook spoke to The Daily Star in an exclusive interview.
Social enterprise, Holbrook said, entails coupling a business’ traditional profit-making goal with the ambition of also achieving a social benefit. “One of the things I’ve learned is the power of business to have potentially positive impacts on the world,” he said.
Business, he believes, can drive social progress in otherwise stagnant sectors: “I’ve worked for some big NGOs and I’ve found them at times to be unresponsive, unentrepreneurial and lacking in innovation. ... We have a global movement [social enterprise] that is ... beginning to grab the attention of business leaders, investors, corporate CEOs and millennial entrepreneurs who are determined to see some change in their world.”
This is Holbrook’s second visit to Lebanon, and he has identified areas in which he believes social enterprise could reap rewards. “There is a huge opportunity to find global export market opportunities in traditional crafts, and I think that’s yet to be fully realized here and I think the market is huge. ... [In] Bangladesh ... it has helped to take hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, out of poverty.”
Other sectors he has identified are agriculture and tech. In agriculture, “you can get a premium price by creating a strong social legacy, particularly if people understand that the produce they are buying is supporting the training or employment of people from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he said. As for the tech sector, “people are crying out for technology companies to be much more social and far less profit-orientated.”
Holbrook said that social enterprise can be sold as an attractive industry to investors. While businesses in the sector may not generate immediate returns, “they tend to be resilient, they tend to be safe, and they tend to be viable in the long run which means that you will get a safe and consistent return on your investment,” he said. “High net worth individuals with lots and lots of money may be motivated by an ambition to see their capital returned, but also by wanting to do good in their communities. ... There is a limited amount of wealth around and too much wealth in too few hands is not good for anyone in society.”
Holbrook has partnered with the U.K. government for many projects in his home country, and he believes Lebanese entrepreneurs can do the same. “The trick is when you’re seeking government support you need to sell it as an opportunity, not demand a solution,” he said.
He expressed hope that his talk would help Lebanese entrepreneurs find their common ground, as working together will be critical for their success in the future: “Working together is progress, staying together is success.”
Rana Khoury, one of the winners of Lebanon’s Social Enterprise Fund, attended Holbrook’s talk. An entrepreneur herself, she set up a platform called Phenomenal Women, aiming to link female victims of gender-based violence to jobs to help them reintegrate into the community. Lebanon, she said, is “a very fertile land for social enterprise because there’s a lot of things to change and fix, so I think it’s a good way to [bring about] sustainable change.”