Saturday, April 25, 2009

Playing social enterprise tour guide

Tomorrow I will be in Phnom Penh where I will meet a group of students and their professor from INSEAD, the business school. INSEAD has a campus in Singapore and the MBA students will be visiting Cambodia for a field trip on social entrepreneurship. Which is why their lecturer contacted me. We will be spending a few days in Phnom Penh and a couple in SIem Reap and it is a packed schedule, so I don't expect I will be updating the blog for a week.

The group comprises Dutch, Austrian, Irish, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Philippines and even a Mongolian lady. Very interesting. We've got a good programme going: the UNDP, Hagar, Acleda Bank, Friends, Shinta Mani, Artisans D'Angkor, the Temple Garden Foundation, the charity arm of Nagathom, an agricultural produce company, and of course, Bloom. I've always wanted to find out more about how these big NGOs work so it'll be a good opportunity. Bloom is tiny compared to these organisations and it will be interesting to learn how they grew to be so dominant.

There is a research paper by Oxford's Said Business School Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained which purports to "Address the critical gaps in risk-taking capital for social enterprises":
"What we are talking about is the need for large chunks of capital that play the role of equity capital (or “equity-like” capital, in the case of nonprofits) that may then be used by social enterprises to aggressively grow and replicate their operations, penetrate new markets, build intellectual property, brand presence and so forth. In the following chapters we will explore why this capital gap exists and why this type of capital is so critical, explain what forms of capital are available, and put forward some ideas regarding capital innovations."
This is what I have been thinking about, because after two and a half years, Bloom is at the stage where we should be enjoying good growth. But we are not, simply because we are limited by my personal funds.

I've been very bloody minded about not getting large scale cash infusions for Bloom - whether through donations or through "equity-like" capital, because (a) I disagree with the aid model and (b) I would like Bloom to be a cooperative, owned by the workers and not the VCs who throw us money but don't do any work and yet get equity in return.

So the only option is to grow slowly, just like any privately-owned SME (small to medium enterprise), which isn't such a bad thing - isn't patience a virtue?

I say "large scale" because two of my friends, Khim, from secondary school and Leon, from junior college, so people I have known for more than 20 years each, have given Bloom money. Khim's donation is going towards Sina's university education while I don't even know how much Leon gave! He is such a super guy he did not even tell me how much he deposited into my Singapore bank account when he did it. When I asked him how much, he simply replied, "not enough." I am so lucky to have friends like this. (I have very few friends - forget Facebook, where I have some 300! - but they are all people I trust with my life). There is also a couple living in Malaysia, Ian and Gene, who gave Bloom USD200 some time ago.

So anyway, I am looking forward to meeting with Cambodia's famous NGOs to see how they operate. I will let readers know what I find out.

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