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To solve global challenges, entrepreneurs can deliver

To solve global challenges, entrepreneurs can deliver
Anna Ryott (center), deputy CEO of Norrsken Foundation, speaks with entrepreneurs in Amman, Jordan, about their businesses during a recent social innovation camp hosted by the United Nations Development Program. (Photo courtesy of the United Nations Foundation's Global Entrepreneur's Council)

By the end of the year, more than 201 million people will be unemployed globally—around 3.4 million more than in 2016. The unemployed, often pushed to the margins of society, face barriers to long-term success, which can contribute to hunger and poverty. In turn, those conditions can fuel nationalism, terror and armed conflict.

That is why “decent work and economic growth” are included in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, or the global goals, at the United Nations. Adopted by world leaders in September 2015, it is an ambitious agenda to ensure a world where no one is left behind. But time is not on our side, and fast action by all actors is essential.

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Entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to help carry out the 2030 agenda. As the leading source of new jobs, entrepreneurs see opportunities where there are challenges and they are quick to mobilize when action is needed. With economic challenges becoming more complex each year, governments would be wise to look to their business leaders to help them diversify economies and create job security.

Anna Ryott is the deputy CEO of Norrsken Foundation, creator of Norrsken House, which has become the largest hub for social entrepreneurship in Europe.
Anna Ryott is the deputy CEO of Norrsken Foundation, creator of Norrsken House, which has become the largest hub for social entrepreneurship in Europe. (Photo courtesy of Morgan Ekner)

The greatest entrepreneurial talents have the potential to solve the biggest social and environmental challenges of our time. Social entrepreneurs, for example, blend business methods with social and environmental goals to provoke a sustainable and systemic shift in the status quo. In other words, they have taken poverty and inequality and turned ending them into new market opportunities for smart, progressive and impact-oriented companies.

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This growing trend was illustrated recently at the UNLEASH Lab, which convened more than 1,000 young entrepreneurs from every corner of the globe for 10 days in Denmark for intensive collaboration on innovative solutions to the global goals. In doing so, it demonstrated how more of the world’s top talent sees social enterprise as a uniquely exciting calling.

Though there are increasingly more social entrepreneurs, there are few examples of social enterprises that have grown at such a fast pace as profit-driven startups. And our societal challenges continue to grow faster than our ability to resolve them. What, then, keeps social enterprises from rapid growth?

Too often, these enterprises are evaluated by the nobility of their intentions, rather than their delivery of results. The social entrepreneurial ecosystem primarily spends its resources on building the capacity of those with an idea but without any experience or background in business.

James Irungu Mwangi is executive director of the Dalberg Group, a collection of businesses that seek to champion inclusive and sustainable growth around the world.
James Irungu Mwangi is executive director of the Dalberg Group, a collection of businesses that seek to champion inclusive and sustainable growth around the world. (Photo courtesy of James I. Mwangi)

Most investors are looking for liquidity and short-term gains. These resources should be more efficiently invested in both training successful entrepreneurs from the private sector to think strategically about the economic opportunities that solving social challenges present, as well as identifying that sub-segment of social entrepreneurs who combine their good intentions with the ambition and acumen to achieve true business success.

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Many entrepreneurs are able to grow social enterprises at commercial rates. For example, through his foundation Norrsken, Niklas Adalberth, who founded the digital payment company Klarna, has turned to cultivating social enterprises that merge high-risk initiatives and high-impact technology with the aim of reaching a larger global audience.

Within a year, Norrsken has become the largest hub for social entrepreneurs in Europe and has attracted some of the world’s leading tech entrepreneurs to invest.

Further, the EkStep Foundation, founded by Nandan Nilekani and his wife, Rohini Nilekani, who created the global technology services and consulting company Infosys, is leading the way on both digital identification and access to education in India by using crowd-sourced curation and collaboration to link textbooks with digital content. This is delivering results at a mega-scale throughout India.

Social entrepreneurs present at the Unleash Innovation Lab to pitch their business solutions to address specific Sustainable Development Goals in front of over 2,000 people attending the “Dragon’s Den” finale.
Social entrepreneurs present at the Unleash Innovation Lab to pitch their business solutions to address specific Sustainable Development Goals in front of over 2,000 people attending the “Dragon’s Den” finale. (Photo courtesy of Astrid Maria Rasmussen)

EkStep’s entire approach and strategy are based on using data to better understand the needs of India’s educational system and achieving results through and alongside the efforts of the government, educators, the technology sector and other partners. In doing so, it reflects Nilekani’s roots in building a large, successful commercial enterprise that tapped into the collective talents and experience of many partners to develop rapidly on a global scale.

If we are to find the next unicorns of social enterprise, more coaching and mentoring for entrepreneurs as well as more rigorous screening of their ideas will be crucial.

Programs like Mara Mentors, a digital platform which assists young and female entrepreneurs in Africa, and recently launched throughout the Middle East, address this through mentorship and skills-building that create vibrant new businesses. Initiatives like these can revolutionize the business landscape for global good.

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As Global Entrepreneurship Week takes place Monday through Nov. 19, more attention must be given to support entrepreneurs as a part of a holistic approach to addressing the Sustainable Development Goals.

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Combining government’s inherent reach and insights with the capital of investors and corporations to support business communities and individual entrepreneurs could drive innovative solutions to create a world of opportunity for all. With the clock ticking on achieving the global goals, there is no time to waste.

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