Social Entrepreneurs In Belarus In Need Of Education
A guest post from Masha Cheriakova, a social entrepreneur and writer of Heta Belarus dzietka. She has made a major life decision a little more than 3 years ago to develop social entrepreneurship in Belarus. This led her to a purpose-driven life. Now she is a social entrepreneur.
After having worked for the past 3 years with Belarusian social entrepreneurs, I continue my mission to develop social entrepreneurship in Belarus. For the coming 3 years I will be working together with three NGO’s in setting up an acceleration program for 170 aspiring social entrepreneurs.
Together with Olga Kapachenia, I have conducted research on social entrepreneurship in Belarus. Covering online findings about the ecosystem of entrepreneurs in general and offline research in the form of interviews of 15 social entrepreneurs, 20 NGO’s and experts on this field, I have come to know about the challenges and needs of social entrepreneurs in Belarus.
Block 1: Belarusian mentality towards entrepreneurs
All surveyed social entrepreneurs have indicated that the biggest barrier towards developing their social business is that Belarusian people tend to think in problems rather than in solutions. One social entrepreneur described it as the following, “most Belarusians tend to think that they don’t have a power or a say in something. They think that the world will change by itself or by the government.” Another social entrepreneur described it as a psychological block towards change. He said “we need a mental shift that will make people responsible for things that don’t work, instead of relying on the government that does not do enough.”
Another problem identified, is that Belarusians have a big problem selling things or how they view selling items as a form begging. Even if they sell a good product, they still think that they are asking for money.
Block 2: Fear of misunderstanding and paperwork
The biggest stumbling block for social entrepreneurs in Belarus is the trouble of explaining and convincing their family, friends and others that social entrepreneurs is a business with a social mission that reinvests profits back into the organisation.
The second barrier relates to the amount of paperwork and red tape. Many are reluctant to start any enterprise in Belarus because of the big risk of being punished for a minor mistake. “You feel like you are being hunted” is what a social entrepreneur said during the interview. Access to licenses and the required certificates is a major burden for many of the social entrepreneurs interviewed who want to sell a product that is not a souvenir.
Social entrepreneurs indicated a need for entrepreneurial skills
Surprisingly these blocks did not relate to the biggest need of social entrepreneurs. Education and networking possibilities is what social entrepreneurs need most. “Writing a business plan, marketing strategy and most importantly an extensive course in selling, is what we need to develop a social enterprise. With the rest we can deal ourselves” an interviewee answered. Meeting like-minded people was also high on the need’s list. One social entrepreneur explained that interacting with other entrepreneurs, like Andrew Defrancesco, would encourage and motivate him to keep going in times when all seemed pointless.
Creating a social entrepreneurial culture will take time, especially in a country like Belarus, where entrepreneurial aspirations are not well understood or necessarily respected. The first step is to recognize what drives social entrepreneurs and identify the resources they need to succeed. From the voices of the social entrepreneurs we have learned that education is the biggest requirement to make their business successful.
Before looking into the direction of the government or other stakeholders to support social entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurs should prove themselves as an interesting and potential business model for job creation and social and economic growth. Development of an effective education program would be the first step to create powerful and successful examples.
Start with education on (social) entrepreneurship, some recommendations
Based on our findings, our study proposes 16 recommendations to develop social entrepreneurship further. I would like to share the most important recommendations that focus on the biggest need of social entrepreneurs in Belarus: Education.
1. Schools should be able to teach their students about (social) entrepreneurship and help build an entrepreneurial culture. This is mainly a governmental level of change that involves the Ministry of Education to collaborate with educational entrepreneurial organisations to jointly promote curricula that includes entrepreneurship. Educators can creatively reinforce these lessons by, for instance, creating competitions in which students present business plans to a panel of experts, who perhaps are successful entrepreneurs. . At the high school level it is equally important to educate the teachers on (social) entrepreneurship.
2. At the university level, the goal is more specific: Provide more students with the desire, skills and knowledge to start a company. To this end, more universities should establish major and minor degrees in entrepreneurship that cover topics such as business planning, problem solving, project management, risk management, finance and accounting. This coursework might include small, specialised seminars in which students work closely with a professor to create a business plan that is presented to investors or VC firms at the end of the term for possible financing.
Even students who are not seeking a major or minor in entrepreneurship could one day benefit from these courses. With this in mind, universities might consider altering the requirements for some existing degrees (e.g. business and engineering) to include a few entrepreneurship-related courses (the same way an ethics course is required of business graduates). Outside of the classroom, universities could support entrepreneurship clubs in which professors, business managers or established entrepreneurs present insights and training.
3. The media could take a more proactive role by regularly covering (social) entrepreneurial issues and seeking out these success stories. By interviewing entrepreneurs and asking for their experiences and barriers, they will unravel the truth from the myths concerning entrepreneurship and present that to the public. Regarding specifically social entrepreneurship promotion, journalists could be offered a training on what social entrepreneurship is and why it is important to cover the subject in the media. Especially reporting on success stories could benefit the media (as they have a nice topic to uncover) as well as the image of social entrepreneurship.
4. Give guidance to the existing promoters of social entrepreneurship. We have identified a handful of initiatives that have made it their core mission to promote social entrepreneurship in Minsk, such as Social Weekend and Talaka. These NGO’s, private initiatives and youth platforms are setting up training programmes, lectures and gatherings for social entrepreneurs.
However, many of them face barriers, partially because they are not sure about how to promote such an ambiguous term or in some cases they are not aware of what social entrepreneurship actually means and mix it up with NGO’s or a social projects or even CSR. Therefore, it would be good to give these promoters guidelines and definitions for social enterprises. This could be done via a website, which will focus on social entrepreneurship. Or possibly educate a pool of experts/trainers that could be invited to promote social entrepreneurship in different lectures and programmes.
5. Measure the impact social entrepreneurs make. None of the social entrepreneurs surveyed mentioned that they were measuring the impact they were making. The value generated by social enterprises will typically be measured in terms of the achievement of their social, cultural or environmental mission, as well as their financial sustainability.
Measuring, for example, young people that gained new skills, jobs being created, pollution diminished, whatever the aim of the social entrepreneurs, it is crucial to show the world that this is not business as usual. Moreover impact figures can also attract investors and partners. Social entrepreneurs should be trained on what kind of tools to use to measure the impact and how to promote these through various channels.
6. Seek finance through Crowdfunding. Crowdfunding involves raising capital, usually in small amounts, from a large number of people. In the Internet Era, this is predominantly happening online through a variety of crowdfunding platforms – each with their own approach and community. In Belarus only three crowdfunding platform exist today: Ulej.by, Maesens.by and Talaka.by.
While Crowdfunding platforms are a very new and not yet a popular way of raising money, we recommend social entrepreneurs to seriously consider this option. Crowdfunding also allows the building of a community of supporters, as well as getting exposure to the associated press and media ultimately spreading the word about the product and mission that social entrepreneurs try to sell.
7. Setting up a social entrepreneurship service centre or a social entrepreneurial incubator. Within this incubator social entrepreneurs can engage with NGO’s to create conferences, forums and programmes to share ideas and experiences, and facilitate networking. For instance, they could set up mentoring programmes so aspiring social entrepreneurs could benefit from real-life business experience and insights.
This could become the place where social entrepreneurs can meet experienced counterparts, discuss their ideas and get feedback and support on developing their business plans. Incubator acceleration programmes can help develop, identify and train social entrepreneurs with the highest potential, then give them a leg-up by providing human resources support, capabilities development, financing and professional services.
Masha is a social entrepreneur and writer of Heta Belarus dzietka
Public Administration in Belarus: A Story of Dysfunction
On 29 March, President Alexander Lukashenka held a meeting dedicated to the accession of Belarus to the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Belarus has enjoyed observer status in the organisation since 1993, and every few years proclaims it will speed up the accession process.
However, as Belarus’s economic reforms falter, a final deal remains elusive. The March meeting was intended to expedite accession, but it also served as a solemn reminder that Belarus may never join the WTO at all.
WTO accession is just one of many issues that Belarusian authorities have wrestled with for decades, without any clear outcome.
Certainly, Belarus as a country has made some progress. When visiting Minsk today many foreigners discover that the Belarusian capital is not that different from other Eastern European capitals. One can dine at a good restaurant, visit an art gallery, and call an Uber to return to a comfortable hotel.
The city is suited for a middle-income economy, authoritarianism notwithstanding. Comparisons to increasingly dysfunctional post-Soviet neighbours Russia and Ukraine make Belarus seem like a part of Europe.
And yet when it comes to public administration, Belarus remains in many respects just as dysfunctional. According to the 2014 Indicator of Quality of Governance, public governance in Belarus ranks lower than in Ukraine and only slightly better than in Russia.
Of zombie enterprises and abandoned school reforms
Belarusian authorities have sustained a litany of unprofitable enterprises when it would be more economical to simply halt their activity. For instance, the state budget has financed JSC Kamvol, a loss-making synthetic fibre producer, for more than 15 years, when the cheaper option would be to shut it down and issue a 10-year salary to its employees.
Process often takes precedence over outcome. If a loss-making company continues to operate, officials can continue drawing funds from the budget.
In another example, the state invested over $1 billion into “modernising” cement and woodworking industries, but these businesses continue to generate losses. Recently, a flax factory in the small town of Liakhavichy used public funds to purchase new equipment, only to discover that it did not fit into the factory building.
Many officials refuse to accept the reality that state programmes fail no matter how much public largesse is poured into them. According to Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Siamashka, in 2005-2010 alone, Belarus spent $42 billion on the revival of Belarusian villages, with little to show for it. Research by the National Academy of Sciences reveals that more than two-thirds of the rural population do not want their children to live in a village.
In Belarus’s chaotic system of public administration, it is never entirely clear who makes decisions or how those decisions are implemented. For example, in the area of education reform, the number of school years was briefly raised from 11 to 12 years, but within just one generation was reverted to 11 years.
At the beginning of 2015, the Minister of Education recommended that Belarusian history be taught in the Belarusian language because “talking about our own history in another language is wrong.” And yet, his proposal was never implemented, possibly because the idea caused a nervous reaction in the Russian-speaking media.
Who is to blame for dysfunctionality?
During the 2000s, immense Russian energy subsidies helped smooth over Belarus’s structural flaws. That is not the case anymore – last year Belarus’s GDP contracted by 4%, and the slide has continued into 2016. Now it is becoming clear that few steps were taken in relatively good times to lay a foundation for the future.
As Lukashenka’s economic advisor Kiryl Rudy puts it, “there is always some wishful thinking embedded in the economic plans. An unexpected rise in oil prices or a sudden strengthening of the Russian rouble.” Current government programmes that are supposed to deal with the crisis are just iterations of previously ineffectual programmes. And despite the inordinate power concentrated in Lukashenka’s hands, the authorities remain inert even in times of crisis.
Indeed, in the absence of free elections, there are few newcomers to the ruling class and unelected officials can afford to make unrealistic promises. The head of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, Uladzimir Husakou, recently suggested that the Belarusian economy will expand by 8-8.5% this year, although the general consensus is that the recession will continue unabated. The poor quality of government elites is a key reason why Belarus in its current state stands little chance of a brighter future.
Where will the current system lead?
Due to the government’s paralysis, its response to the recession has been slow and inadequate. There is a widening gap between Minsk, the relatively prosperous capital, and the rest of the country.
Some manufacturing enterprises, such as television monitor production plants, recently disappeared after years of wasted government funding, while many of the industries that remain, such as machine building, are unprofitable.
Trust in the government is also low. According to a recent poll by the Independent Institute of Socio-Economic and Political Studies, only 20.6% of respondents said they prefer to deposit their savings in Belarusian roubles, and a majority said they mistrusted the main state institutions.
Without reform, Belarus risks wasting its economic potential as the young generation grows older. It will become a country of despair, where low-paid people do not see any future and emigrate. In fact, that process is already underway.