Article published in Entrepreneur Middle East by Tamara Pupic.
For a while now, the UAE has been recognized for its efforts to encourage social entrepreneurship. Just this year saw the establishment of the Ma’an Authority for Social Contribution in Abu Dhabi, a government entity providing social entrepreneurs with funding, mentorship, office space, business expertise, and accessto investors, while an example from Dubai could be Expo 2020 Dubai’s Expo Live US$100 million fund for projects solving social and environmental challenges. However, this support system for enterprising individuals with a willingness to use their business acumen to make a positive impact on the world took some time to develop. “A key challenge for Consult and Coach for a Cause (C3) at an early stage was the lack of an entrepreneurial ecosystem and, more so, the lack of awareness about social enterprise models and early success stories,” says Medea Nocentini, co-founder and CEO of C3, a UAE-based organization fostering social enterprise in the MENAT region that launched in 2012. “In order to help the community to grow, we had to be a one-stop-shop for all the business needs of our entrepreneurs. Today, with access to traditional accelerators and with social enterprise concepts better known, we can focus on what we do best: social innovation, impact measurement, governance, and connections with impact experts and investors. And therefore, one of the best things we learnt is to focus on our strengths and assets, while partnering with other organizations to provide the rest.”
Nocentini is one of a growing number of UAE-based professionals using their spare time to build commercially sustainable solutions for social issues. Upon obtaining an MBA from Columbia Business School, USA, a MSc in mechanical engineering from Politecnico di Torino, Italy, and an engineering diploma from Ecole Centrale Paris, France, Nocentini’s career has included stints at Booz Allen Hamilton, OSN, and she currently serves as the Chief Strategy Officer at the AW Rostamani Group. C3 was launched while she was a media executive at OSN. “In C3’s early days, people would ask me, ‘Why are you doing this? What’s in it for you? Are you sure it is the right time and place to start such a platform?’” Nocentini remembers. “And I would not have many answers other than, ‘There are change-makers out there, who are making the world a better place thanks to our support, so I can’t stop now.’”
Initially, the C3 network counted only about 15 experts, and fewer than 10 social entrepreneurs. However, together with co-founder Anna-Liisa Goggs, Nocentini managed to get on board a variety of partners, including corporate partners such as Bain and Company, academic institutions such as Hult Prize and MIT Arab Enterprise Forum, and government entities such as Dubai Future Accelerators and Emirates Foundation. These partnerships have resulted in launching multiple social enterprise programs and social innovation initiatives in the region. Nocentini states that so far, C3’s social entrepreneurship and innovation programs have helped more than 350 entrepreneurs, and engaged more than 2,000 experts. For the first five years, Nocentini and Goggs had bootstrapped the business, investing their personal savings, and in 2017, they started providing services to corporate clients, such as Dubai Cares, Dubai Chamber of Commerce and Industry, MBC Academy, KSA General Culture Authority, and local Emirati conglomerates.
Before long, C3 was awarded the first international Social Enterprise Mark issued by Social Enterprise Mark CIC, an international social enterprise accreditation authority, and was recognized as a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Pioneer for outstanding contribution to Goal #17, “Partnerships for the Goals.” These recognitions contributed to HSBC deciding to sponsor C3’s flagship program, the Social Impact Accelerator, in four regional countries. Furthermore, the partnership has now been renewed for three more years for the program to expand to eight countries in MENAT – UAE, KSA, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey.
When it comes to lessons learnt along the way of building C3, Nocentini highlights the criticality of asking for -and listening to- feedback. “When clients and beneficiaries took the time to do so, we have sought to delve deeply into their responses (both positive or negative), sometimes by asking more questions, sometimes by comparing our offering with what others provide, and always feeding back those improvement ideas into the next program, or testing them out with some willing participants,” she says. “Being challenged is painful, and it creates more work, but it is the only way to evolve and provide better products or services, as well as a broader and deeper social impact.”
In terms of advice for social entrepreneurs, Nocentini says that those who go down this route need to be committed to it for the long run. “Creating and managing a social enterprise is a difficult journey,” Nocentini says. “The most challenging thing is finding the right balance between financial results and social impact. In particular, knowing when and on what to reinvest profits to grow the business strategically. In those occasions, I normally discuss options at length with Anna-Liisa and the team, and also ask C3’s board of advisors to share their point of view. Also, I find it difficult to stick to the traditional strategy around constructing a three to five-year plan. Over the years, I have found the lean business approach to testing in an idea will work or fail to be more applicable to C3.
By heading in a general direction and testing out the details as we go along, we have been able to respond quickly to a rapidly changing work environment.” And what should social entrepreneurs do when they find themselves in a situation when the odds seem to be against them? “Even in the worst moments, there is always a way to keep going,” Nocentini declares. “Social entrepreneurs can always scale down, pivot, find a way to support themselves financially with short-term consulting projects, but I firmly believe they should never put aside their dreams and passion; when difficult times come, they should ask for help, and work harder.”