How to Start a Social Enterprise

By: Miranda Mantey 

November 14th, 2013, six youth from inner city Halifax pitched their business to the “dragons” on the hit Canadian show, Dragon’s Den. The youth, all looking to be around junior high age at the time, had stumbled their way into a financially and socially sustainable business starting in 2007 when they were given an abandoned plot of land by the city. The plot was full of weeds and garbage, and slowly the youth had transformed it into a flourishing garden, and began to use their produce to create organic salad dressing. All proceeds from the salad dressing went back into a scholarship fund for the youth working on the garden.

By 2011 they had started to sell their product at the local Seaport Market, and by 2012 they had doubled the amount of bottles they had sold. By 2013, they were unable to keep up with the demand leading to their ultimate appearance on Dragon’s Den. The team received $40,000 from the dragons with all returns going back into the company, helping kickstart them towards a thriving future.

Now, Hope Blooms has 60 youth involved, an award-winning greenhouse they designed and built, 4,000 square feet of organic food gardens, and programs focused on everything from culinary and cultural arts, to mentorship and tutoring. Although this story makes me feel inspired and happy, there’s one thing that haunts me about it: if they could do it at age 13, how come I couldn’t do it at 20?

Find something you’re passionate about

My journey into social entrepreneurship wasn’t, shall we say, as “pretty” as Hope Blossom’s journey. I never anticipated to start a business, however in my second year university I took an entrepreneurship class that ended in a pitch competition.  After the positive feedback and support we received from the judges, mentors, and our parents, we were hooked. In 2015, myself and two others launched Bundles of Hope which aimed to tackle poverty for low-income mothers— a cause I had been passionate about since childhood. The cyclical problem we identified was that low-income mothers struggle to afford diapers, and when they can’t afford diapers then they can’t send their child to daycare, and when they can’t send their child to daycare then they can’t work, and when they can’t work then they can’t afford diapers. We tried to assist solving this problem through the sales of baby swaddling blankets with donating a days worth of diapers for each product sold. Through this model we were able to help tackle the issue in two ways with both employment and diaper donation.

However we couldn’t get something right that Hope Blooms clearly did; we couldn’t make it sustainable. We worked on it for a year and a half, had a successful crowdfunding campaign, created products, employed a low-income mother, and donated diapers. However, we were never able to find a stable fabric supplier without cost-restrictive rates. At the same time that I had realized that I would need to travel to India or China to make personal connections for a fabric supplier, we ran out of money, we realized there were many legal hurdles for selling children’s sleepwear, and one of my co-founders decided to bow out. Thinking through trying to fit in my classes and homework, part-time work, extra curricular activities, and this “bundle of problems” I knew I should quit while I was ahead. Over the next few months of 2016 we slowly dissolved our company and I will be frank, I felt like shit. I felt like a failure. I cried to my mentors. I wondered if I tried hard enough while simultaneously questioning why I even bothered. And I wanted to burn the 100 “unsafe” swaddling blankets that I still have in my basement to this day. But looking back on this with two years of perspective, I realize one important thing: at age 20 maybe I couldn’t do what those 13 year olds could do, but at least I tried.

From the short-lived Bundles of Hope, we managed to employee a low-income mother for 20 hours, we donated 250 diapers, and we brought recognition of this issue to almost a thousand people through pitch competitions and fundraising efforts. When we shut down the company I always wished those numbers were higher, feeling as if I could be more proud of my “failure” had we made a greater impact. But then I realized it was still hundreds of more dollars for this mother, still hundreds of more babies’ bums covered, and still thousands of more people aware of this issue. That impact is better than nothing. Not only that but my current full-time position was a direct result of Bundles of Hope, I’ve coached startups on how to pitch, I’ve judged pitch competitions, and managed to leverage my experience to build up my career and impact the community.

The Steps:

I definitely crafted the title of this blog post carefully. The article on “How to Start a Social Enterprise” is literally only going to tell you how to start:

1. Find something you’re passionate about, and just try

Because some impact is better than no impact at all.

Miranda Mantey

Miranda Mantey

ATB, Global Insights Associate

Miranda Mantey is an experienced researcher, entrepreneur and strategist with a passion for learning and all things pertaining to the future. This thirst for knowledge is what led her to her position as Associate of Global Insights at ATB Financial, where she spends her time monitoring international market trends to advise projects and innovation strategy. Outside of work, Miranda loves spending time with friends and family and can often be found with her dogs.