Social entrepreneurialism sounds like a fluffy concept to some, so what does it really mean? Moreover, what does the term mean to entrepreneurs driving in that particular lane? Do they really want to save the world? Do they just want to make money? Or maybe ‘true’ social entrepreneurs advocate for a sweet spot in between?
We speak to Vulcan Augmetics, a Vietnamese startup that’s changing perceptions of disability by creating affordable and work-friendly prosthetic limbs for consumers with physical disabilities.
General Manager, Ella Trinh, details their fundraising and networking journey including what methods work best for social impact businesses like theirs, (including the fact that a strong mission can encourage stakeholders to help you out for free! – But more on that later).
Business Advice, (BA): What makes your brand stand out in the tech and social impact space?
Ella Trinh, (ET): I think it’s our combined approach that makes us special. Not only are we offering specialised tech solutions for people with physical disabilities, but we also understand the deeper cause of the problem. Disability itself isn’t a problem, it’s employment.
People, especially in Vietnam, are stuck with fake prosthetics that don’t work properly, so they can’t make a living. We create ones that adapt to work functions, including basic hand movement for daily functions.
What we provide is an option for them to take it off and put on a working model that helps them work in a specialist job. Our goal is to help amputees get back into the workforce with product and skils based training.
BA: For social impact businesses, in particular, is networking really that effective for making lasting connections?
ET: Meeting and networking with like-minded people are very important, and especially if you’re in the social impact sector. I can’t describe in words how fortunate we are to meet people who share the same passion for social enterprise.
For example, we were part of the Chivas Venture competition earlier this year in Amsterdam and we met a guy from Japan there whose wife is working in the Paralympics sector in Japan.
From that meeting, we’re already figuring how we can work together. Attending business events and competitions make for invaluable contact experience, we would have never met those people if we didn’t make an effort and network.
BA: How do investors view social impact startups these days? Are perceptions changing?
ET: In Vietnam, there aren’t that many social impact competitions, it’s still a new trend as we’re still a developing country. This means that investors are still quite averse to funding social impact businesses. Sometimes, people think we’re an NGO, not a commercial set-up.
However, there’s a shift in attitude happening now. Being seen as a social enterprise is actually good for startups generally, investors get excited, they sit up and ask, ‘why, and how?’ That’s how we survived the last 18 months with limited funding. We’ve had active support from marketing advisors, and have had people chipping in and offering their favours because they believe in the company and what we’re doing.
BA: How about the funding climate for social impact businesses generally?
ET: When it comes to fundraising, some investors are afraid that you’re too much about social impact and not enough about business. The key is to find a sweet spot between the two. That’s why social entrepreneurs attract other social entrepreneurs for funding. We’re currently engaged in crowdfunding, but this is still quite a new concept in Vietnam. What’s working for us right now is offline funding, we find that people are contributing to our campaigns because they are really enthused about them.
BA: Can you tell us about a campaign you’ve run recently that’s helped the business raise its profile?
ET: We undertook our first CSR project last year where we managed around 30 amputees who were going through the process of having a prosthetic limb fitted. We offered them work placements and managed to partner up with Vietnam’s premier coffee chain to make it happen.
My advice for any campaign or project would be that partnering with ‘big brands’ makes for some good CSR advertising, as consumers, as well as potential investors, will have more trust in you.
There’s a consumer misconception that Vietnam is not known for tech. That’s why we work with partners that have the eyes of the consumer in Vietnam. I think the same logic can apply to startups anywhere. If you’re going to partner with someone, do your research to make sure they appeal to your core audience first.
BA: In terms of strategy, how can social impact entrepreneurs ensure they remain ‘on track’ with their goals?
ET: My definition of impact in social enterprise is the willingness to solve problems that no one else is willing to do. It’s about serving a more difficult market and doing a more complex thing, it’s not straightforward.
However, if you care deeply about the community you want to serve, it will keep you on track.
I’ve spoken to many social entrepreneurs, and they are all very clear about the people they want to serve. They care so much that they want to come up with a solution. That drives a social impact business forward.
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