Editor’s Note: Clicking internal links in this article opens a new browser window to references, while clicking the pictures opens youtube videos from the social entrepreneurship workshop in Vietnam. The author was one of the speakers at the workshop. The author’s view is his own and does not represent the views of other speakers, the organizers, or the sponsors. The youtube videos are produced by the workshop’s organizers.
On June 17 of this year, students at RMIT Vietnam’s Saigon South Campus organized a workshop on “Social Entrepreneurship in Vietnam: People, Ideas and Perspectives.” By many accounts, social entrepreneurship is playing a vital role for sustainable change, particularly at a time when the for-profit sector is “doing well by doing good” and the government welfare state are in decline. The workshop, co-sponsored by RMIT International University Vietnam and Bauer Global Studies at the University of Houston, aimed to gain insights on how to build and promote sustainable social ventures/enterprises in Vietnam. The workshop included a panel discussion comprised of scholars and practitioners along with students’ elevator pitches from the two participating universities.
What is social entrepreneurship (SE)? The workshop’s organizers, relying on the research of the Skoll Foundation, define SE as having three pillars: (1) social aim, (2) innovation, and (3) market approach. For critics, however, the values and the impact that social entrepreneurs bring to society remain unclear and debatable. For example, economist Robert Barrow responded to a Bill Gates’ speech at Harvard University’s commencement with the observation that by “any reasonable calculation Microsoft has been a boon for society…the market value of its software greatly exceeds the likely value of Mr. Gates’ philanthropic efforts.” Still others, such as academic Philip Auerswald, note that the idea that “social entrepreneurs and large corporations both create social value is not really in dispute,” but what is “in dispute is the type and quantity of social value that can be attributed to each.” Here, proponents argue that the value creation of SE pertains to equity (and not efficiency), whose entrepreneurial schemes are to directly or indirectly enhance human capabilities, increase freedom, and trust (rather than commodities and private value). And while social entrepreneurs may have the same core temperament as those in the corporate world and may justify cutting ethical corners as a means to achieve social ends, SE is utilized as an alternative to the culture of greed and selfishness.
But perhaps because of the diverse backgrounds of panelists, members of the panel discussion themselves could not come to an agreement on what SE is, what differentiates SE from other forms of entrepreneurship, or whether profits needed for or created by SE will raise thorny ethical concerns.
Without a doubt, a culture of SE is emerging in Vietnam, due not only to international education and international funding but also due to the “needshare” in Vietnam; “needshare” is a measurement based on the number of people served divided by the total number of people in need for particular social ventures. By some accounts, “the inner contradictions” of reform socialism in Vietnam since 1986 has created a dual society: where “superior” and “inferior” conditions coexist and where such conditions are becoming chronic rather than transitional. As a result, some, driven by patriotism, are seeking opportunities to advance SE in Vietnam. For example, Tri Viet International University, expected to open in late 2013, plans to be the first green/sustainable and private university dedicated to public service in Vietnam; whose governance is based on SE and whose mission is to be the flagship institution of higher education. Other organizations, such as the LIN Center for Community Development, are working to facilitate coordination between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors in order for a SE community to emerge. However, as SE scales up or becomes transformative in Vietnam, it will likely face structural pressures (i.e., that the communist party as the force for social change will limit SE); and political pressures (i.e., until national and local Vietnamese authorities define SE, it is vacuous).
All of members of the panel discussion are involved in social ventures/enterprises in Vietnam. Their social ventures/enterprises are either transactional or incremental. All would agree that some forms of entrepreneurship are needed to improve Vietnam’s inferior conditions. More importantly, all panelists would agree that to be an effective social activist, he/she has to have entrepreneur skills; to be considered a successful entrepreneur, he/she has to address social needs; and to be seen as a useful business professor, he/she has to differentiate between entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship.
Students, at RMIT International University Vietnam and at the University of Houston, are youthful at heart, intelligent, creative, media savvy, and motivated to help others who are less fortunate than themselves. The challenge for our universities is to support and nurture students – who are from different socio-economic groups and cultures, etc – to realize their potential to help others. Through the Southeast Asia study abroad program at the University of Houston, students have utilized SE to create social values in Vietnam. Adapting someone else’s novelty and tolerating above average risk, students created a microfinance project that lends to poor working families in Vietnam without charging interest. They also come to RMIT Vietnam’s Saigon South Campus not only to pitch ideas to but also to hear ideas from Vietnamese students in the hope of future cross-culture collaboration between the two sides.