Women first, prosperity for all. This was the theme of the 10th Global Entrepreneurship Summit, hosted late last year in Hyderabad. It was also an unofficial theme for the year itself. Around the world, we witnessed demands by women to address persistent gender inequalities as a prerequisite to social and economic progress.
In 2018, one pressing question is how to convert the momentum generated by movements like #MeToo into lasting impact. A recent five-country study, commissioned by the British Council, on the mutual interdependence of social enterprise initiatives and women’s empowerment movements provides insights into the strategies for—and barriers to—long-term change.
As the study’s North India research partners, we conducted a series of interviews, a survey of social enterprises in India, and focus groups across nine Indian cities to galvanize conversation on the contributions of social enterprise to women’s empowerment and the challenges at hand.
For this study, we defined a social enterprise as an organization with a central social or environmental mission that earns at least 25 percent of its revenue through commercial activity. Such a definition enabled us to make international comparisons between countries with diverse regulatory and legal landscapes in relation to social enterprise. It also provoked questions about the place of social enterprise and other organizational forms within longstanding social and women’s movements in India.
Our research highlighted the multiple meanings behind “women first,” including the significance of women’s leadership and the importance of attending to the needs of women beneficiaries and employees in the social enterprise sector. In this three-part series, we explore the impact of social enterprise—including its ambiguous place among older social organization models—on women in India.
Financial empowerment as a way toward social transformation
There are an estimated two million social enterprises in India, according to a previous British Council report mapping the social enterprise ecosystem. About a third (more than 600,000) focus on empowering women and girls as primary beneficiaries of their social mission.
Among our survey respondents, the most prevalent approaches focus on skill development and job creation. Many of these social enterprises, including women’s clothing producers rangSutra and KhaDigi, operate within the handicrafts sector, the second largest segment of India’s economy after agriculture. Some, like Jaipur Living (formerly Jaipur Rugs), focus on creating sustainable livelihoods for women by combining flexible working hours with connections to global export markets.
But social enterprises span a wide range of emerging industries. Some integrate rural youth, including young women, into India’s thriving business process outsourcing (BPO) industry as call-center employees. Taxi services by and for women, such as Sakha Consulting Wings, train and employ women in the male-dominated field of commercial driving, while also advancing the cause of women’s safety and mobility in urban India. Through Odanadi Trust in Mysore or Sheroes Hangout in Agra, restaurants, cafés, and ice cream parlors provide women who have survived trafficking or abuse with a means of earning money and developing skills.
The prominence of employment and income generation among social enterprise strategies for women’s empowerment in India reflects the unique strengths of the hybrid social enterprise model. Applying market logics to social issues is the sector’s raison d’être.
These strategies also reflect genuine needs of women in India. Many participants in our focus groups argued that financial standing gives women more decision-making power in their families and communities. “Social factors and forces must be combined with economic factors and forces,” says Shalabh Mittal, CEO of the School for Social Entrepreneurs India. Only then, he says, will more conservative interests buy in to the idea of social change. Or, as one participant in Jaipur bluntly put it: “When you earn money, men start respecting you.”
Yet this equation, so appealing in its simplicity, did not go unchallenged. Some participants were skeptical that financial empowerment and market integration, without parallel (and often unprofitable) efforts to change ingrained mindsets, could accomplish all that is needed to put women and girls on equal footing with men. Their caution echoed deeper concerns about the place of social enterprise within the constellation of other models comprising India’s social sector.
Hybrid models in the social sector
At a Kolkata focus group, participants raised a provocative question: Do we really need to distinguish NGOs from social enterprise? As a whole, the group agreed that women’s empowerment should be the key issue, rather than who does it.
This question shed light on a source of tension that ran through many of our conversations during this research. Designating some Indian organizations as social enterprises and some as “just” NGOs (or businesses) could have wider ranging effects on the social sector. Will the popularity of social enterprise further reduce the resources available to traditional nonprofits pursuing critical work in advocacy and other fields less amenable to monetization?
Unlike countries with newly emerging legal forms explicitly designed to enable organizations to pursue both social and commercial objectives, a distinct hybrid legal entity does not yet exist in India. Indian social enterprises must currently incorporate as one of the following: a nonprofit, which cannot legally maintain substantial surpluses from year to year; a private company; or a hybrid structure with separate nonprofit and for-profit entities. These choices have material consequences, since some forms of support (such as government contracts under social programs) are largely reserved for nonprofits, while others (such as impact investment funding) are more accessible to social enterprises with a stronger business orientation.
These two organizational forms also carry historically gendered meanings. India’s nonprofit sector grew out of the voluntary movement, which promoted social progress driven by the unpaid social work of volunteers, says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi. This vision offered limited scope for asset formation and financial gain by social organizations. As Kumari asks sardonically, “What do volunteers eat? Grass?” So-called social work and NGOs became a feminized domain, since women were not usually expected to be the primary providers for their families.
Many hope social enterprise can transform this image of the social sector by making both “doing good and doing well” possible. But as policy develops over time to recognize and support social enterprise in India, the sector must avoid several pitfalls if it is to maximize the hybrid model’s benefits for women. The “social” in social enterprise in itself cannot justify restrictions on financial remuneration for women and the organizations that support them. Social enterprise must be positioned as a partner, not a replacement, for existing players in the women’s empowerment field.
The market-based hybridity of social enterprise remains its distinguishing feature, and economic participation can indeed enable women to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order. And yet social enterprise offers significant opportunities beyond financial gain—many organizations represented in our study address issues of sanitation, childcare, and women’s representation as decision-makers in their communities. Often, especially in health and education, these organizations empower women and girls alongside men and boys. If putting women first is to bring “prosperity for all,” we must expand the reach of economic empowerment as well as the definition of prosperity.