Social Entrepreneurs and Change in Dubai

An event revolving around the UN Millennium Goals, TEDx Change Dubai, recently gathered three hundred participants at the creek side Dubai Chamber of Commerce. Melinda Gates, wife of billionaire philanthropist and once Microsoft overlord Bill Gates, asked a pertinent question while streaming live from New York.

How is it that Coke can sell 1.5 billion servings daily and dispense to far flung areas that NGOs, Quangos and aid agencies have difficulty reaching with aid or vaccines? It's simple. Coke's distribution takes advantage of local entrepreneurs. NGOs often don't. Entrepreneurs are by nature both disruptive and generative. They distress the fabric of large business through hyper-local knowledge. They nimbly pounce on small market opportunities, or even build them from scratch. They catalyze economic spurts and the birth of cultures and sub-cultures as microcosms of activity appear around them. Their knowledge and drive can often be a powerful catalyst for social improvement.

When entrepreneurs facilitate positive social change, they earn the all-encompassing solace of being termed "social entrepreneurs." The admirable Mohammed Younus of Grameen Bank from Bangladesh is an example. He originated a micro-credit business model that changed many lives for the better, but was not charity. Fred Smith of FedEx is another social entrepreneur. He realized customers were frustrated with fragmented delivery services, and came up with the idea of a unified process under the control of one organisation. But due to distortion by clever marketing and spin, social entrepreneurship can mean almost anything these days.

To separate wheat from chaff, it's important to recall that the term "entrepreneur" is essential; social alertness, flexibility and single-minded purpose is inherent to small enterprise, social or otherwise. Much of the recent positive change in Dubai is driven neither by altruism nor nihilistic commercialism, but a curious meeting of the twain. Dubai's nascent art and cultural renaissance is largely due to determined individuals with boundless energy converting industrial warehouses in the Al Quoz district to art galleries, communal spaces and concert halls. These have offered much-needed space for the city's infantile civil society to function. They have offered a useful platform too for artists, performers, trainers and even other entrepreneurs to congregate.

In similar social entrepreneurial vein, two Emirati brothers, distressed at the inability to find inexpensive healthful food in a city wracked by obesity, started a fusion shawarma shop in Dubai Healthcare City. Their outlet serves a socially nourishing purpose while also offering invaluable shared space, yet also generates returns. For a city where progress is often a curious synthesis of laissez faire and rolls of cherry tape, social entrepreneurism has often lent a helping hand. It places the burden of change squarely on the shoulders of residents and not a deux ex machina.

As a thought experiment, let's turn to the case of domestic help. The relationship is bracketed by mutual dissatisfaction -- maids often complain of incessant work and occasional flagrant abuse, while employers mutter about unreliability and an uncanny ability for either employee or household articles to vanish mid-contract. There have been calls for rules, regulations and a greater role for embassies and consulates.

But surely a simpler approach is to treat this as a social entrepreneurial opportunity? Mutual suspicion may be remedied by a meticulous recruitment agency specialising in the field. One that interviews all help, assigns categories and pay scales based on expertise, checks backgrounds scrupulously and ensures opportunistic middlemen are not involved. An agency that insists on dignified living standards, monitors salary transfers, ensures passports aren't illegally held, guarantees the availability of cellular communication and conducts regular reviews to ensure an abuse-free environment. On the flip side, the agency takes responsibility for absconding, investigates theft accusations, and guarantees replacements in the case of a mismatch. I suspect many households would gladly pay a small premium to facilitate peace of mind and the conscientious use of domestic help.

Social entrepreneurship works very well when there is obvious market demand. In Dubai, as elsewhere, demand can lead the enterprising to market opportunities that also foster positive social change. One can be socially proactive while making a profit. Now that's a win-win situation.

This article was initially written for the Khaleej Times and can be found here.