Social entrepreneurship helps Chinese citizens fight social problems without resorting to politics. Perhaps we can learn something from them.
In my last post, I profiled Isaac Mao, who is building a platform to bring his IT and business skills to the service of social activists.
We-Impact approaches things from a different angle. The Shanghai-based company offers organizations a framework for reflection and action, teaching them that it is possible to generate revenue through sustainable development.
"Our parents' generation started the development process. Our generation needs to create social responsibility," says Ann Wang, We-Impact's co-founder. She realized this in 2009, while in Copenhagen attending a climate-change conference. Up to that point, she had worked in luxury industries and concierge services for the ultra-wealthy.
When she returned from the conference, she started to work with a British associate and Simon Kubski, a Canadian who has lived in China for five years and speaks the language fluently. Their goal wasn't to oppose industrialization, but to take a more social approach to it, trying to change people and organizations’ lifestyles, since that is where “human values and action” meet, Kubski says.
Wang and Kubski call themselves “engagement specialists” who create a sense of participation among the groups they work with, notably in convention and conference sessions. They've hosted everything from Shanghai Fashion Week's closing ceremonies to music festivals. But they also help companies – from a pizza place to the local Lexus branch – reexamine their values.
“We don't necessarily provide a solution,” Wang says. “But the framework we give helps them get there. It's important, especially in this area, that founders and leaders come to their own conclusions, reexamining their own values and figuring out how to translate them to the product or service level.”
They did this with Sophia Pan, of P1.cn, a successful social network built around luxury brands. Working with We-Impact, the company is in the process of changing “into a platform where people can share their real lives with their real friends,” Pan says.
“We're driven more by values than by commerce,” Pan says, adding that she hopes to provide exclusive contributions. By doing this she risks losing, and assumes she will lose, half of her network's members. That's the gamble, trying to do this while maintaining positive revenue: Pan hopes she will bring together the real leaders in China's young generation, a generation she describes as “very surprising.”
Several things contribute to this movement's emergence
First, it's important to recognize that there is a notion of trendiness in things like this, as I learned from social activist Ye Yin. Things happen after people start talking about them.
A few people have told me about the importance of “values,” which they believe were lost during China's development, as a way of forgetting 1989's suppressed protests. They're conscious of the potential for further widening of social and geographic inequalities, and that they can't wait for the government to act on this.
Instead, they took matters into their own hands, trying to change society without doing politics – something that's important to many young Chinese.
It's even more interesting that these young people want to be "civic-minded," to use a word used to describe them by Yin Yang, another social entrepreneur. Maybe they're helping start a renaissance in active civil society?
Can we learn from this?
There are definitely lessons here for people who think that democratic nations are experiencing a crisis in traditional politics right now.
This sort of action isn't a way of eluding a dictatorship's restraints, but a way of helping solve problems that the political class is incapable of addressing.
This is no doubt why social entrepreneurship – the pursuit of social objectives by a company that must also keep its revenue in mind – is becoming attractive to a growing number of young people around the world.