Berlin’s social business co-working space the Social Impact Lab is set to expand across Germany and into Austria by the end of 2013. With social entrepreneurship or social business gaining traction internationally, VentureVillage went one-on-one with lab leader and iQ Consult CEO Thorsten Jahnke – who has helped spearhead the movement in the German capital for more than 20 years.
In 1997, when Jahnke helped set-up iQ Consult – a microfinance company and support network for budding social entrepreneurs, the term “social business” or “social enterprise” didn’t exist, until recently. The terms mean combining a profit-making model with social values. Prime Berlin examples include fundraising-project marketplace Betterplace.org and “good deed a day” website Doonited.
“Social business is a very new concept, but it can offer people a more fulfilling career. Many people – bored with traditional, corporate careers like in banks and finance, are now combining their business expertise with a social value,” Janke says. Toward the end of the 90’s, conditions were financially poor to start a business, “so to help give others a chance of successfully starting-up, we began iQ Consult through GLS Bank,” he says. It wasn’t until 2008 that the iQ Consult team learned that what they were doing was a social enterprise and a growing movement at that. “That’s when we decided to set up the Social Impact Lab,” Jahnke says.
The Social Impact Lab
The Social Impact Lab is as much a co-working space as it is a mentoring service for upcoming entrepreneurs. And they’re young. Fresh-faced 20 to 30 years olds populate the lofty 650-square metre floor in Kreuzberg. “We had five emerging startups to begin with. Now we have 40,” Jahnke tells us, “many students finishing their studies come in with degrees that I could only dream of and they know it’s not a profit-driven industry. These people want to add meaning to their career – money isn’t everything.”
The project is dually funded by the public and private sector, between the German Federal Ministry and software giant SAP. With large-scale support on board and growing demand, more Social Impact Labs will be up-and-running in Hamburg and Heidelberg this June, as well as Munich, Cologne and Vienna – by the end of next year. “In the past year, awareness in the sector has really changed and there’s a real shift.” In its biggest sign of support for the industry, the German Federal Ministry set up a new fund under the “social impact localizer” programme in January to help finance social business startups. The boost means the Government will match whatever funds are sought from investors, making social startups a more attractive, and potentially sustainable business option.
“There’s some really great, creative ideas coming out of this lab,” Jahnke says eagerly. One resident startup Photocircle.net is a marketplace for photographers to sell their snaps and for people to purchase and print them. Photocircle.net then puts a portion of the money back into the region the photo was taken, ultimately benefiting developing countries. Other startup ideas are simply witty, “there’s one that has made an alarm-clock app, where, everytime you hit the ‘snooze’ button – you’ve made an automatic donation to a charity of your choice!” he says.
Social enterprise startups – onwards and upwards?
“I believe that the corporate and charity world will become closer. It’s becoming old-fashioned to not consider social demands in big businesses. Here in Germany, people are becoming more sensitive to social affairs and standards. But it’s got a bit of catching up to do in terms of where the UK is at,” Jahnke says. But will the idealism be enough to propel entrepreneurs into sustaining a social business in the long haul? “I don’t know where it’s headed, but I do know that society is more interested in a real value economy. There’s a bigger future for social entrepreneurs if the industry continues to head in this direction. Hopefully the idealism will keep them going.”
For Berlin’s most promising social enterprises, watch our video-feature below:
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