My story with Social Enterprise starts I returned to Niagara College in 2008 to get a Bachelor Degree in International Commerce and Global Development – a true gem of a program that combines the disciplines of business management, international trade, and global human and economic development. While completing my internship requirement at the Ntinga O.R. Tambo Development Agency in South Africa I was confronted by the injustice and legacy of Western colonialism, Apartheid, and the disconnect of capitalism from community good. Like Niagara, the Wild Coast is a mixed urban and rural area with an economy based solidly in agriculture and tourism and challenges related to underemployment, lack of reliable transit, and housing. I was inspired by the many business and social innovations, including co-operatives, that were being implemented to address persistent challenges in the Wild Coast. I asked alot of questions and once I understood what was going on I decided: “I’m going to bring this kind of thinking back to Niagara.”
Since I’ve returned, I’ve quietly worked to inspire local innovation through my work with government, non-profits, small businesses and students. A social enterprise forum in Niagara had been a goal for me and a small group of colleagues for more than five years, so I was excited to assist the other organizers in planning the event.
I’ve noticed that while other regions of Canada and the rest of the world have been embracing Social Entrepreneurship to varying degrees over the last 30 years, within Niagara Social Enterprise has continued to suffer from a strong stigma – Niagara businesses fear the label of Social Enterprise would undermine their image as a “real business” while many non-profits and charities are fearful of what it would mean for them to be seen to be earning healthy revenues. Despite this, Niagara does have exemplary social enterprises, including Trivium Industries, Cowork Niagara, Niagara Sustainability Initiative (NSI), and the Grimsby Benevolent Fund, to name a few. Each of these social enterprises is addressing an environmental, economic, or social challenge as part of their core business activity. And local interest is growing, as proven by the number and diversity of sponsors and attendees of the recent Niagara Social Startup Forum. We’ve reached a tipping point in Niagara.
I am excited about the potential of the growing community of those in Niagara who are practicing, knowledgeable of, or interested in Social Entrepreneurship, coming together to encourage and support one another. I think it is important that we create a shared understanding of Social Enterprise within the context of Niagara, and spread great ideas.
At its best Social Entrepreneurship can be used to leverage the strengths of both businesses and non-profits to make our community better. Many non profits and charities are struggling under the burden of reduced funding and increasing need, and business as usual isn’t addressing our increasing social and environmental challenges. Social enterprise can provide financially sustainable solutions to many of the persistent challenges facing Niagara.