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Being a social entrepreneur during COVID-19

22 April 2020 at 6:22 pm
Margaret OBrien
Young Change Agents co-founder and CEO Margaret O’Brien shares what the last few months have been like as the founder of a social enterprise, and why she is running a campaign to help bring social procurement into the spotlight in a simple way during this time.

Margaret OBrien | 22 April 2020 at 6:22 pm


Being a social entrepreneur during COVID-19
22 April 2020 at 6:22 pm

Young Change Agents co-founder and CEO Margaret O’Brien shares what the last few months have been like as the founder of a social enterprise, and why she is running a campaign to help bring social procurement into the spotlight in a simple way during this time.

I don’t think anyone goes into social enterprise with a pandemic on their risk matrix. In terms of an unforeseen risk, this is as tough as it comes. I wanted to share a founder’s perspective on the last few months and the glimmer of hope I see in all this.

Early March – The alarm bell

Firstly, for context – our social enterprise, Young Change Agents, runs a lot of face-to-face education programs around Australia. We work inside schools, at corporate offices and we fly interstate a lot! So, when the news came on 4 March that we were now up to 53 confirmed cases, it increasingly became obvious there could be a huge risk that we would be shut down as per other countries. 

On 5 March, we received the first email indicating a program would need to be postponed. A signal of what was to come. It was from a global tech company and they had made a decision to shut down all events globally until the end of June. In their email they wrote about having a team dedicated to managing this risk and that, I think in retrospect, really jolted me into action.

I typed up this list of risks and sent it off to our board with my mitigation strategy:

Key risks

  1. Schools going into shutdown across the country.
  2. Staff not able to travel.
  3. Staff getting coronavirus or needing to take care of people with coronavirus.
  4. Not being able to meet our contracted deliverables/getting paid.
  5. Not being able to secure the fee-for-service work we were targeting.

I went into mitigation mode. I wanted to make sure we were prepared for what was to come and wouldn’t be blindsided if everything shut down. 

My main response was to speak to all of our clients to get on the front foot in contract negotiations. I had good success with that – enough to make me feel calm and confident that we could make it through a few months of disruption (and that’s what we all felt it would be at the time). I also felt enormously grateful and lucky that we had the relationships with our partners that we did. A number actually said they were grateful I was thinking about it as they could bring other partners into that conversation. That prompted me to write a LinkedIn post as I realised not everyone may have been given the heads up of what was coming. 

I chatted to my team and they were calm and solution-focused. We spent about a week trying to rebook, move, change things around so we could still run programs in some way face-to-face where possible before a seemingly inevitable shutdown

Things we were rescheduling then started to be cancelled as well and I felt we were losing time as we spent hours organising things that were not going to be delivered. It was really frustrating, and I knew we had to switch our mindset and actions quickly, even if only for staff morale.

Mid-March – Adjusting to change

By mid-March cancellations were coming in left and right and we were also moving office. I was due to head to Adelaide for a second stage program where I would also be testing out our new Buddy App with students, and was completely torn between wanting to move forward with something that could be a game changer for our social enterprise and then the overwhelming feeling that I could be responsible for moving a virus between states.  

Eventually I made the decision to cancel the program and refocus our attention on creating our first virtual design thinking challenge for young people. The Coronavirus Youth Design Challenge went live by 23 March with our main supporter, Telstra Foundation, bringing in judges from Google, Facebook and Microsoft – a small silver lining for us amidst the cancellations and uncertainty.

Personally, I wasn’t sleeping more than four hours a night. As a social entrepreneur I felt an overwhelming responsibility to our mission to support young people, to my eight staff – none of whom I wanted to have to let go, to my own family – of which I am the sole breadwinner.

End-of-March – Relief and refocus

By the end of March, the government had released stimulus one and two and the relief that I felt can’t be put into words. It was clear that the impact of this virus was going to be significant and last longer than we initially thought, and the Australian government was looking for ways to keep the economy going as we moved into the next phase of shutdown.

The financial boost allowed me to think about the additional strategic projects we could take on as a team to come out of this period not just surviving, but thriving.

I also started to think about ways I could give back to the social enterprise community that was hurting around me. I had posted on LinkedIn earlier in March about supporting each other but decided sometimes you just need to roll up your sleeves. After speaking to a retail social enterprise that had only had “one sale on their usually most busy day”, I set up the Power of 3 campaign on StartSomeGood to showcase some of the fantastic product-based social enterprises in NSW and the ACT. As a founding board member of the very newly formed, Social Enterprise Council NSW and ACT (SECNA), one of the key things I want to help with is building that sense of community and support for social enterprise as a whole, and opening up conversations around basic social procurement. If someone can understand and experience the power of buying a social enterprise bar of soap – I can see that translating to how they buy at scale for their company.

April – Support and innovate

This is our current phase and I am mostly sleeping through the night again. Our team has taken to Confluence, Zoom and Slack with gusto and we are delivering virtual challenges, running masterclasses and working on our business strategy and technology.

A couple of observations I have seen in my team and that I am learning along the way:

  1. By providing them some guiding principles they can see the bigger picture and come up with solutions themselves and get them done.
  2. Working from home is completely possible – but it is much nicer to be around people. As some of my team work remotely this is something to remember when life goes back to normal. We have literally “walked in the shoes” of remote workers and can better support them now.

This is a very unique time for any startup/social enterprise in that the nature of the JobKeeper payment is that you are being paid to work without a product to necessarily deliver. I like to think of it therefore as an “innovation grant”. By reframing it as such I now ask the question, “how might we best use this unique time to make the most impact we can moving forward?”

As both individuals and founders we can tap into our growth mindset, which I found is really well articulated in this great model from Leanne Kemp, Queensland’s chief entrepreneur:

There is a huge amount of power and potential for the future of the social enterprise community if we all actively look for opportunities to innovate and help others. 

I would love to hear more about what social enterprises are doing to innovate during this period – to not just survive but to thrive coming out of this.

Margaret OBrien  |  @ProBonoNews

Margaret O’Brien is the co-founder and CEO of Young Change Agents.

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