The Rise of Social Entrepreneurship in Iran
The mainstream Western media often fails to present a balanced and positive view on Iran, an emerging market filled with young and visionary social entrepreneurs ("socents") who are actively pursuing innovative and sustainable ways to improve their society and alleviate economic, environmental, and social issues. Emboldened by the recent nuclear agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 powers, many entrepreneurs are exploring the potential to find solutions to various social challenges by identifying pragmatic tools and resources, which has culminated in creation of startups and social entrepreneurship firms throughout the country. A fast and rising social venture startup scene is hard at work behind the headlines.
Iranian social entrepreneurs are as driven and savvy as their counterparts in San Francisco, New York, London, and Bangalore. They are constantly seeking and implementing innovative solutions, tools, and processes that achieve measurable sustainable impact, while addressing Iran’s pressing social, economic, or environmental challenges. Take Iran’s water problems, for example. According to recent statistics, seventy percent of Iran’s groundwater resources have been depleted. Therefore, groundwater shortages and deteriorating water quality would most likely lead to a national environmental crisis. Certainly, the government alone will not be able to solve such a herculean challenge.
From January to March 2015, we carried out a survey in partnership with George Mason University to map out a preliminary landscape of social entrepreneurship in Iran. Since we were both based in the U.S., we invited trusted and knowledgeable local partners in Iran to distribute the survey in Persian and English within their constituencies. Relying on random snowball sampling, we encouraged our local partners to distribute the survey to their own contacts, thereby linking us to their own personal or professional networks of budding Iranian social entrepreneurs throughout the country. In April 2015, we conducted structured and semi-structured interviews during a research trip to Iran. One of the most fascinating highlights of this trip for us was Azadeh’s participation in a workshop on social entrepreneurship in Iran. Overall, more than 100 entrepreneurs from around the country responded to our survey. Our findings suggest that this sector is growing rapidly and needs urgent support, nurturing, and scaling. Some of our most important findings are highlighted below:
Iran has an estimated social entrepreneurship market of 50,000 to 75,000 active participants.
83% of Iranian social entrepreneurs are currently engaged in an initiative, organization, or start-up with a social, economic, or environmental objective.
60% believe in the use of technology toward finding more effective solutions to their modern day challenges.
More than 50% of survey participants is actually pursuing the process of building and running a socent as part of their daily job.
Women who are heavily under-represented in our surveys have the highest participation rates in social enterprise startup events, weekends, and trainings.
The sector, although nascent and evolving, also faces obstacles that were highlighted in our survey in relation to the ecosystem; in particular, government red-tape, lack of regulation in favor of social enterprises, unavailability of foundations grants, impact investors, loans for social entrepreneurs, the unavailability of exchange programs, and opportunities to connect to regional and international social entrepreneurship knowledge networks.
Although some of the above-mentioned hurdles are not unique to Iran, the rise of social entrepreneurship has actually occurred surprisingly late in Iran compared to the rest of the region. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon have experienced a rise in number and quality of social enterprises. Many Middle Eastern social entrepreneurs’ ventures have scaled across the region and Northern Africa, receiving support from institutional donors, impact investors, and international foundations as well as organizations such as Ashoka, Echoing Green, and the Unreasonable Institute. Due to the international sanction regime and visa restrictions imposed on Iranians, many social entrepreneurs have not benefited from such outside support and opportunities for cross-pollination, and have rarely had a chance to access fellowships or exchange programs, or grant support. This puts them in an even more disadvantageous situation.
Yet, despite these obstacles, we found that exciting and socially innovative initiatives are emerging in the country, and entrepreneurs are adapting successful models in social entrepreneurship to the local and national conditions and needs. We present several of these initiatives in Iran that are led by visionary socents.
Tehran Hub is a nonpolitical and non affiliated organization combining a comprehensive co-working space, incubator and accelerator program and is about to get launched in partnership with Amirkabir University and Samsung. The director, Alireza Omidvar, has also served as a catalyst in drafting and preparing new national legislation submitted through Tehran Mayor’s office under the title of CSR Program for Municipalities, to officially recognize social enterprises as separate legal entities along side traditional charitable/nonprofit organization and for profit businesses, which is a unique undertaking. The Hub is targeting young social entrepreneurs in the country, and focuses using technology and social innovation to address pressing social, economic and environmental problems in the country, while building a resilient ecosystem for social entrepreneurship.
Other fantastic initiatives that we have learned about in our interactions with socents in Iran are those social entrepreneurs who are using technology and online platforms to solve social problems. For example Ladybug has boosted the participation of Iranian women in the technology and start-up world through content building, community, and educational programs.
Dastadast, supports indigenous artisans in Iran with business and capacity building solutions, and offers them an ecommerce platform to improve their livelihoods. The co-founder, Mrs. Faezeh Derakhshani, emphasizes the need for more education, access to international experiences, and knowledge platforms to boost the capabilities of Iran’s social entrepreneurs instead of emulating foreign models blindly. She states, “Many Iranian entrepreneurs develop their ideas” for example at social startup weekends, “and present them as social enterprises, but these initiatives are essentially duplicates of other initiatives, or not at all socially innovative or solving a social problem within a community.“ With regards to the use of technology and social innovation, she expresses the need for more sharing and learning about other successful social-tech models and educating the youth about the use and purpose of technology “not just to launch a website, but actually using technology in the design of a socially beneficial solution, take for example the use of solar energy providing electrification in remote rural areas.”
One of our favorite organizations is the Roozbeh Charity, based in Zanjan province, which focuses on the education and promotion of waste reduction and waste separation among citizens. The charity has a unique grassoots mobilizing and hybrid model aiming to prevent environmental pollution through waste collection, and has led to a considerable number of new jobs as well as an important source of revenue for the organization.
Mr. Najafi, who is a member of the board, believes that considerable attention is paid to social entrepreneurship at bootcamps, startup weekends, and other type of events and higher education institutions, and that “its revealing of a rising sense of consciousness within Iranian society that centers on community interests and no longer based on individualism.”
Overall, driven and passionate social entrepreneurs who have found creative solutions for their country’s social problems lead all of these organizations. The potential for (impact) investors, as well as the Iranian diaspora, to support these initiatives either through donations, or other resources, such as mentoring as well as connecting to transnational networks is unprecedented. Since Iran and the P5+1 recently reached a nuclear deal, the opportunity to collaborate with the Iranian social entrepreneurship community and empowering them to carve an effective, resilient, and strong ecosystem for social entrepreneurship has become a lucrative reality for Western and Iranian diaspora investors.
Photo Credit: Roozbeh Charity