Uplifting marginalized communities has long been the mandate of DLSU, an institution rooted in serving the last, the least, and the lost. After the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda in 2015—marking a renewed worldwide commitment to resolve global issues—the University formally launched the Social Development Goals (SDG) Localization Project in 2016 to put those global goals into action.
The Lasallian Social Enterprise for Economic Development (LSEED) became a crucial pillar of this project as they helped students and communities build social enterprises—business ventures that not only offer livelihood opportunities but also uplift marginalized communities and help them stand on their own.
Helping others do more
As part of the University’s SDG Localization Project, LSEED aims to localize SDG 8, which tackles employment and economic growth, and SDG 17, which encourages global partnerships in pursuit of sustainable development.
The very core of the initiative is “actually acknowledging” social problems, explains LSEED Development Specialist Norby Salonga. “There are social problems or societal problems and divides that we have to look into and that we have to address.”
Although LSEED-led social enterprises are meant to be self-sustaining, profit is not the sole measure of success; it also hinges on community development and the skills gained by both students and community partners.
“We no longer [only] look at the transactional aspect of entrepreneurship when we do business with [the community],” he expounds. “It’s on the transformational [aspect] na we change the way they see things and we provide [capacity]-building and skills development that are critical to them to better negotiate or better manage [their social enterprise].”
Students who train or attend formation programs under LSEED are taught how to develop social enterprise models for communities, such as the award-winning ISDABest model, a sustainable aquaculture concept that intends to cut supply chain costs for fisherfolk. Projects may also include financial literacy and marketing components for partner communities.
LSEED takes pride in having incubated 31 social enterprises and over 200 social entrepreneurs drawn from a cadre of students and community partners. LSEED also launched #WeCan International Boot Camp and Research Colloquium in 2019, bringing together universities and organizations from across Southeast Asia to help localize SDGs through social entrepreneurship.
Additionally, LSEED also manages the annual Hult Prize at DLSU competition, envisioned to be a “start-up accelerator for social entrepreneurship”, while NSTP-LSEED and a Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship class in the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business provide students more direct opportunities to discover social entrepreneurship.
Learning and improving
Several years of hard work had become learning opportunities for the team. Managing expectations among student participants is one, Salonga stresses. “This is not the typical fellowship program that can be used to build CVs and resumes,” he adds.
As the program deals with transforming communities and livelihoods, participants must have a strong commitment to their project. Salonga notes that the formation process emphasizes community partners as co-owners instead of simply being “beneficiaries, suppliers, or merely participants”.
More importantly, the LSEED family of social entrepreneurs, he says, has become “very much driven” to continue with the mission. “You have to understand that because it’s a social engagement [and] they are doing it voluntarily….that tells me that what we’re doing is important to them as well,” Salonga notes, highlighting that some of the program’s alumni even return to mentor the newer batches of social entrepreneurs.
The drive and commitment to encourage learning within LSEED’s cadre of social entrepreneurs extends even to competitions. Rather than view them purely as a way to gain prestige, Salonga argues, competitions are instead seen as crucial ways of learning, especially for students. “Your main objective is to learn from the experiences of the people that you are competing with…We are competing because we want to know what would be the best solution to the [problem],” he elaborates.
Hoping for change
In the face of rising global inequality in recent decades, the prospect of social enterprises as instruments of inclusive growth is steadily gaining recognition. Institutions such as the British Council and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) expressed faith in the potential of social enterprises to close development gaps in the Philippines.
Despite support from international institutions, government aid remains limited. The Poverty Reduction through Social Entrepreneurship Bill, filed by former Sen. Bam Aquino in 2015, languished in Congress, as lawmakers hit the bill’s proposal to create a new regulatory agency and to allow for tax exemptions for social enterprises.
Salonga contrasts timid support from the Philippine government to those received by South Korean social entrepreneurs under late Seoul mayor Park Won Soon. By helping social enterprises gain access to funding and facilities from both the government and the private sector, these ventures have become much more successful. “There’s a buy-in…support coming from the government,” Salonga says.
LSEED, however, enjoys more success with its participation in the Subcommittee on Labor Capacities of the Department of Trade and Industry’s Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise Development Council, which is tasked with supporting small businesses, including social enterprises.
Further, Salonga believes that the work and success of social entrepreneurs have instead influenced large corporations to look into carrying out their own social initiatives. “Gone are those days when we think about [feeding programs] as our only strategy to address malnutrition. Gone are those days when we only see medical missions as our way to address poor access to healthcare services,” he describes.
Time to step up
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has put social entrepreneurship into a tight corner. Salonga admits that many in the social entrepreneurship sector have been forced to close or pivot their businesses. Only enterprises within the food and agriculture sectors have managed to survive well.
Nevertheless, LSEED is undeterred. Chief among the program’s tasks is to help existing social enterprises, meaning that the program remains very much hands-on for its mission. Technology-wise, LSEED followed the digital shift undertaken by other sectors, moving its mentoring program online and employing a progress report system for tracking.
Though faced with a towering challenge, Salonga believes that social entrepreneurship will play a key role once the road to recovery opens, saying, “I do believe that this is the perfect time for [social enterprises] to step up and actually make contributions in addressing the problems that we face or the impact of the COVID pandemic. Specifically the lives of the people, the marginalized.”
LSEED, which was originally slated to last five years since its inception in 2015, will soon formally transition into the DLSU’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship, which will absorb LSEED’s current initiatives along with an expanded mandate. As LSEED and social enterprises continue to roll out their projects, the mission is far from over.