The first time I used business practices to create a social impact was when I was 22, working for a Cambodian nonprofit called the Salvation Centre Cambodia, a grassroots organization that supports individuals suffering from HIV/AIDS and poverty.
In 2010, Battambang — Cambodia’s second-largest city — was still very much a sleepy town. My only friend was the Australian expat who owned the hotel where I lived that summer.
My schedule solidified quickly. During the week, I ate what I would now say is my favorite breakfast: a French baguette with butter, two fried eggs, fresh fruit and a pot of black tea. On the way to work, I dodged large muddy puddles that rainy season brought each afternoon. After teaching English to a sea of Cambodian children ranging from 4 to 16 years old, I went home to the hotel, where I swam and taught myself to meditate with the help of a Thich Nhat Hanh book I bought at a bookstore while visiting my grandmother in Providence, R.I. My grandmother found me reading the back of the book in the Eastern Philosophy section and said approvingly over my shoulder, “There’s something about that way of thinking.”
On the weekends, bored and with plenty of time on my hands, I began venturing to the local markets and bought textiles I thought were beautiful. I showed them to the women who were learning how to sew at the SCC, and we began designing purses together. The phrases we communicated to each other most were “saat” and “saat na,” or “pretty” and “really pretty.” At the end of the summer, we had a stock of saat purses to sell online and at a spa in Waterville, Maine, where I was enrolled at Colby College.
At the time, I had never heard of the term “social enterprise.” I knew I saw value in using business practices to generate much-needed income for the SCC. Nevertheless, social enterprise has played an important role in my career, and I’ve had the opportunity to see many examples of the positive impact it can have on communities.
That first income-generating project led me to return to Cambodia after I graduated from college to work for an anti-human trafficking organization that had a social enterprise employing survivors of human trafficking.
Later, I had the opportunity to meet founders of social enterprises from all over the world while I worked for the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise at the Aspen Institute. With fascination, I listened to Paul van Zyl discuss the impetus that led him to create Maiyet, the modern and ethical luxury fashion brand that employs artisans whose skills are on the verge of extinction. I hung on every word that my former boss, Peggy Clark, spoke about the early days she spent in microfinance with her best friend, Jacqueline Novogratz, who went on to create the Acumen Fund, which is considered the most well-known social-impact venture fund.
Free market economists say humans only care about themselves and that people can increase their happiness and satisfaction by buying and consuming more. On the other end of the spectrum, Buddhist economists say that human nature is good, that humans want to be altruistic and that happiness comes from making sure people lead comfortable, dignified lives, interacting with each other in a meaningful way.
I believe social enterprise connects these two views. Producers can sell products and services demanded by the free market that also help solve social problems like income inequality and climate change. Consumers, understanding that a meaningful life is created by caring for one another and the planet, can choose to purchase their goods and services from companies that reflect these same values. I like to think that social enterprise is the type of thinking my grandmother hinted at in the bookstore.
As we all know, Oklahoma has some of the worst health and education outcomes in the United States. Many of us are also aware that Tulsa has an incredibly strong philanthropic community that continues to provide critical social services while our state government fails to do the same. While we wait for our state leadership to cure our budget crisis and discover the economic value of financing education and health and social services, Tulsans should create and support social enterprises to help solve our social problems and create a thriving and inclusive community.
Although there is not a concrete definition for social enterprise, after discussion with leaders in the field, I define it as an organization that uses business principles to generate revenue in order to solve a social issue.
Aware of the breadth of social problems in Tulsa, I was eager to learn about Tulsa’s social enterprises when I returned to live here at the end of 2015. When I met with folks who worked in the social sector, I expressed to them my interest in social enterprise and was surprised by the responses I received. Most people were unfamiliar with the concept of social enterprise and at best they struggled to list even a few social enterprises that existed in Oklahoma.
This lack of awareness in Tulsa about social enterprise is partly due to the city’s thriving philanthropic sector. If you have a good idea about how to solve a problem and a solid execution plan, it is not difficult to find a funder for your nonprofit. In Tulsa, there is a heavy reliance on the support of philanthropy to solve our social problems.
With Oklahoma’s budget crisis and the new administration in the White House, many nonprofits in Tulsa are facing reduced funding and are looking to foundations for even more help. As the director of grants and impact at the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation, I see this trend in our portfolio of grantees and have received an increase of grant requests from organizations that have never sought funding from local foundations until now.
Tulsa has mounting social problems and now, more than ever, is the time to innovate the way social changemakers achieve their desired outcomes. Using a social enterprise model allows social entrepreneurs to use the power of the free market to achieve their mission and alleviates over reliance on philanthropic support. For nonprofits, social enterprises increase sustainability by adding another means of revenue.
In the more than a year since I returned to Tulsa, I’ve discovered that there are excellent social enterprises here, and I regularly hear about new ones. For example, 501TechNet provides affordable information technology services to Tulsa’s nonprofit industry so that more of its financial resources can go directly to its service users. T-Town Tacos offers employment for homeless and at-risk youth. Take 2 Cafe provides employment opportunities for women recently released from prison. These social enterprises can serve as inspiration for entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in their community.
There are two new opportunities for entrepreneurs who desire to solve society’s most pressing issues to bring their visions to reality. The Tulsa StartUp Series has launched a social enterprise pitch category and the Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation is implementing the Tulsa Kiva microlending platform. The Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation is also hosting a series of events featuring locally and nationally recognized social enterprises. To learn more about these resources and events, please visit TulsaStartUpSeries.com and LobeckTaylor.com.
About the author: Before joining Lobeck Taylor Family Foundation as director of grants and impact, Natalie Deuschle worked in the United States and abroad to create positive social impact. During her studies at Colby College, she launched an income-generating project in Battambang, Cambodia, which was recognized by former USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.
Since then, Deuschle has worked for Family & Children’s Services to help move families out of poverty, created a health-care program with the Senhoa Foundation for survivors of human trafficking in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and managed a top-12 public-private partnership between the Aspen Institute and the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.
Her written work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the Aspen Journal of Ideas, the Aspen Institute Blog and Art Focus Magazine.