Creating a successful business can be a long, and often solitary, slog. But for social entrepreneurs, meeting up with peers can do more than just keep loneliness at bay.
In the age of LinkedIn, Google Hangouts and remote working, real life still rules. According to one study by EY, in-person networking is twice as popular as networking via social media among professionals in the early stages of their career.
When it comes to collaborating, face time makes a big difference. “Even with all those incredible tools and technologies, it’s very important to have a first face-to-face contact”, says Helena Gata, president of ESLIDER-Portugal, a network for civil society and social enterprise leaders. “The distance between partners is frequently underestimated.”
Bridging that distance through more in-person, cross-border interaction is one of the objectives of Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs. The EU-funded initiative, delivered by Euclid Network since 2011, offers newly established or would-be entrepreneurs practical and financial assistance to spend 1-6 months with a host entrepreneur abroad. For participants, it’s an intense period of working with and learning from a peer in their sector. But what if they could network with a much wider group of exchange alumni and other entrepreneurs?
This question prompted a first ‘Gathering to Grow’ event, two days of networking and learning held in Lisbon in January. Euclid Network and our partners invited 20 exchange alumni, other social entrepreneurs, potential future programme participants, and policy experts. With over 80 people of 15 nationalities and diverse areas of expertise, and countless inspiring ideas, it was — as Euclid Network president John Low put it — “an event for the curious”.
“The distance between partners is frequently underestimated.”
Learning — and doubting
Business people love growth. But social entrepreneurs want to grow more than just profit margins: they seek increased social impact; expansion and deepening of networks; and personal growth as an entrepreneur and leader. So, alongside networking sessions, Gathering to Grow featured experienced entrepreneurs and experts discussing big-picture issues like the green economy, as well as more practical subjects such as social financing.
Sometimes growth can feel like a step backwards. “I am doubting more things now”, says London-based Emanuele Nargi of the event, “but this is a good thing because it will make my project more feasible and stronger in the end.”
Nargi, who worked with community theatre Tres Social in Madrid last year through Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs, says that talking to others in Lisbon made him rethink his ambitions for his project, a creative company specialised in theatre for social intervention and immersive theatre. “I’m trying to figure out how I can increase the income of my new company, and be less dependent on European funds.”
In-person meet-ups can fast-track the creation of a support network. The two days resulted in “fast friendships and useful advice”, for UK-based entrepreneur Debbie So, who says: “I love meeting fellow young entrepreneurs; we gel so quickly because of our shared experiences.” Real-life conversations lead to “meaningful connections”, agrees Sarabjit Kaur; a welcome change to battling constant emails.
No entrepreneurs’ gathering would be complete without the energy and nervous anticipation of a live pitch. Ten exchange alumni had 4 minutes to pitch their business to a panel of 10 experts; each then had 30 minutes of one-to-one feedback with a panelist.
“I loved speaking with my mentor, Tobias Vahpahl [from CSI Heidelberg]. It was useful to get a perspective of someone from academia”, says So, whose project aims to educate young entrepreneurs. “Our conversation stretched from my business idea to deconstructing the social enterprise sector and methods of impact — super interesting stuff!”
“Our conversation stretched from my business idea to deconstructing the social enterprise sector and methods of impact — super interesting stuff!” Debbie So on meeting with Tobias Vahlpahl to review her business plan.
The power of exchange
Erasmus for Young Entrepreneurs exchanges enable new or aspiring entrepreneurs to acquire relevant skills, while their more experienced counterparts gain fresh perspectives. Both expand their international networks.
Kaur, who recently completed an Erasmus exchange with the Cool Bean Company in Dublin, says it gave her “a very good insight about what it takes to turn an idea into a real business”. With plans to market food products to Irish consumers, the exchange also took her a step closer to building her venture. “I got some really important contacts in the industry and a very good understanding of the food business in Ireland,” she says.
Based in France, Kaur is Indian-born, making her among those “bringing new insights and approaches to social problems from outside of Europe”, says Gata. “That’s a positive impact [of the network] that perhaps wasn’t foreseen.”
And the benefits are two-way. Mariana Silva, founder of Village Underground Lisbon, a co-working space and cultural centre, hosted new entrepreneur Polly Robbins from the UK for three months last year.
“Polly brought many new ideas to my project and that is priceless”, said Silva, speaking in a Gathering to Grow session where exchange alumni showcased their projects together. Both businesswomen highlighted the impact of the exchange on their business strategies and their future plans: Robbins now plans to stay in Lisbon and develop her business there.
“I got some really important contacts in the industry and a very good understanding of the food business in Ireland,”
Can the network go beyond the two-way impact of an exchange programme? For many entrepreneurs, Gathering to Grow was a chance to reflect on how their efforts fit into the bigger picture of social challenges. The event also sparked some ideas, for example joining forces to seek sustainable financing. “It’s too hard for one person working alone to find funding, even though there are opportunities out there”, says Silva, who also believes a solid network could help to positively influence policy.
Euclid Network couldn’t agree more: alongside delivering exchange and support programmes, we are working with our many partners for more favourable European policies. Together with the network of social enterprise federations and support organisations we established, we’ve called on European institutions for more momentum behind social entrepreneurship. (Read our thoughts on the latest European Commission report on our blog). Gathering to Grow: Part II, held at the European Parliament in Brussels, will focus on building support for Europe-wide actions on social business — and bring the various stakeholders together.
“It’s really important for us to connect the people behind the policies with the people experiencing their effects in the real world”, says Risto Raivio of the European Commission.