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The business of making a difference

Social enterprise may be more than just a buzzword if last Saturday’s attendance at Cambodia’s second-ever conference on the matter was anything to judge by.

The 350 person-plus crowd of attendees consisted predominately of Cambodians, for whom doing business appears to be about more than merely creating jobs and turning a profit.

These aspiring entrepreneurs also want to do good.

Lina, a fourth-year chemical engineering and food technology student from the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, said that she attended the conference at the Cambodia-Japan Cultural Centre to learn how to make any future business she may run socially benefit the community.

“This conference is about social enterprise and I’m interested in participating, because maybe in the future I will run a business and somehow help the community. I want to know what are the things we can repair before running a business.”

Her definition of a social enterprise was much the same as the others at the conference: a business that can both make money and help the community.

Lina’s idea of help from business was in line with the models described by Alissa Caron, country co-ordinator for Population & Development International Cambodia, who in her speech discussed the various models on which social enterprises could be based and emphasised the need for them to be businesses first.

Caron saw a need at the conference to dispell the notion that social enterprises and NGOs are one and the same, even when they may share similar goals.

“[There is] this attitude which I heard this morning in the questions of still thinking of social enterprises as NGOs or not being able to separate in one’s mind the NGO mentality from the business mentality,” she said.

“I think that is really critical when starting a social enterprise. People really have to focus on the profit maximisation and not lose sight of the social goal, but drive the business forward and not think we need to pay our workers extravagant salaries just because they come from this really vulnerable community,” she continued.

The lack of profit maximisation is what Caron feels has limited the growth of social enterprise investments in Cambodia and around the world.

“I think it ultimately comes down to this misconception that some investors feel like social enterprises just really are NGOs trying to help people and they’re not looking to maximise profit. They’re not thinking about the economic aims as much as the social aims. So therefore, they wouldn’t be good on their investment, they wouldn’t be able to repay a loan. They’re just going to lose money. Perhaps that’s because some social enterprises do, but I don’t think for the most part it’s a fair assumption to make."

And just as a social enterprise needs a thought-out business model, it also must have a clear message, she said.

“Your social message has to be integrated or your customers won’t be interested,” she continued, emphasising the importance for a social business to be clearly more than just a business.

To contact the reporter on this story: Gregory Pellechi at



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