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Social Entrepreneurs – What Inspires and Motivates These Change Makers

Four Social Entrepreneurs discuss what inspired them, and the social impact of their projects

L to R – Gulnara Shahinian (Democracy Today), Zufi Deo (BizGees), Veronika Zonabend (UWC Dilijan), Rania Kinge (I LOVE SYRIA, Damascus Concepts)
L to R – Gulnara Shahinian (Democracy Today), Zufi Deo (BizGees), Veronika Zonabend (UWC Dilijan), Rania Kinge (I LOVE SYRIA, Damascus Concepts)

Social entrepreneurs are a special breed of leaders with a higher calling to disrupt  the norm and empower the marginalized. Perhaps comparable to leaders who as Doris Kearns Goodwin describes, give up “ambition for the self…for ambition for something larger.”

“Social entrepreneurship is an enormous responsibility – think twice before diving in,” says Armenia-based  Democracy Today NGO founder, VP of Council of Europe, and UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Form of Slavery, Gulnara Shahinian “If you believe in people, you will inspire them to achieve higher goals.”

The untapped resources of Armenia’s women in post-Soviet 1991 independence of Armenia - compounded with hopelessness, mass emigrations and poverty -  propelled Shahinian to chart a long-term strategy for Armenia’s rural population: inform and educate the women on basic human rights and civil society and offer microloans to help launch cottage industries to generate “jobs and a sense of self-worth.”

“To undo the dire situation faced by women in societies with Sharia Law and help them be masters of their own destinies,” thrust Geneva-based entrepreneur and designer, Rania Kinge to launch “I LOVE SYRIA” and Damascus Concept in 2013.  She hired and trained internally displaced Syrian refugee women to make handmade  jewelry and accessories product line while organically creating an international market. To sustain local crafts and economy amidst poverty and destruction in war-ravaged Syria, Kinge focused on helping women gain economic sustenance and avoid refugee status.  Sounds simple - unless you’re a woman entrepreneur launching a business in a Muslim majority, patriarchal society lacking an entrepreneurship ecosystem – and during wartime.

Concerned about the future of her children’s education, and inspired by a presentation by  Sir Ken Robinson on transforming the culture of education, the social impact investor and entrepreneur Veronika Zonabend (along with her husband Ruben Vardanyan) launched education-focused social enterprises in the UK, Armenia, and Russia. Establishing a United World College campus in Armenia’s resort town of Dilijan Zonabend hopes “young people realize that their future is in their hands regardless of socioeconomic background.”  The 17 UWC campuses worldwide (of which Dilijan is 14th) offer experiential learning as “a force to unite people, nations, and cultures for peace and a sustainable future” instilling a sense of responsibility in the students and the communities in which they live.  Engaging investors to support long-term, social impact visions is challenging, says Zonabend whose expertise in secondary and post-secondary education place her on Board of Governors of UWC Dilijan College, and as the founder of RVVZ Foundation help her design and implement philanthropic, sustainable development projects along with her husband.

Social  entrepreneurship isn’t for faint at heart says Zonabend, “you must be a visionary, courageous, patient, consistent and resilient,” underscoring the importance of setting priorities and ultimate goals, but remaining flexible and adaptable in “execution depending on the current circumstances” and not lose the sense of purpose as you face people anxious about change who need to trust before participating.

Disturbed  with the mounting 68+ million displaced refugees globally, Zufi Deo used his 20 years’ experience empowering SMBs globally, to design and launch BizGees - a FinTech social enterprise which Deo and a co-founder registered in the UK last year.  Providing interest-free microloans to transform refugees into entrepreneurs in Uganda, Kenya and Cameroon, BizGees makes available Startup Boxes of solar-rechargeable lamps that can be sold by refugee entrepreneurs to provide direly needed electricity while creating jobs and economic sustenance.

A  winner of the 2016 Infosys Challenge for Financial Inclusion at UNICEF FinTech Jam for Good in London, BizGees has launched crowdfunding campaigns of: Crypto mining where donors donate processing power instead of funds; Designers for Refugees with  British Pakistan Foundation (BPF), Swat Valley Guild and The RSA supporting textile designers from the British Pakistani Community, and Arts4refugees in partnership with artFix London auctioning works by emerging artists – to generate funds for refugee entrepreneurs. Support from accelerator programs as Zurich (Switzerland)-based F-10 FinTech program, London’s Entrepreneurial Spark, and the Virtual blockchain for social impact program validated BizGees by Oxford University’s MBA students during their social impact courses.

Inspired and Driven by the Social  Impact

The misperception about the inability to impact and design your life path if you are not lucky to be born in a well-off family is enhanced in UWC experience allowing “young people to be architects of their own lives, changemakers in their communities and the world, even if they were born in underprivileged conditions,” explains Zonabend instrumental in establishing a $7 million Near East Foundation Gratitude Scholarship to offer full UWC tuitions for six refugee students from Syria, Palestine, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Lebanon based on demonstrated promise and potential.

Projects  initiated by Zonabend and her husband have “empowered locals to strive for success while believing in their own future” as their IDeA Foundation’s Aurora Humanitarian Initiative – recognizing international changemakers with a $1M award at a star-studded gala held in Armenia - “has impacted the youth of Armenia and Diaspora to overcome victim complex (as surviving generations of the 1915 Genocide), to be more than just survivors but thrive to help others,” explains Zonabend.


Meeting Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi) as a teen, influenced Deo on how business can balance social and economic impacts. At London’s UNICEF FinTech Jam for Good last year, Deo focused his business idea on vulnerable refugee communities like those in Zaatari UN Camp, where 100,000 refugees operate 3,000 micro businesses with an informal monthly economy of $12 million -- yet lack financial support. BizGees plan: generate and measure the social impact “mainly in terms of wealth and jobs” using the UN Sustainable Development Goals as a marker.

Visiting  shelters in Damascus during the Syrian war, Kinge decided “to create possibilities instead of dead ends so people didn’t gather and wait for nothing.”  Launching her social enterprise single-handedly with 12 internally displaced Syrian refugee women, today she employs 100 women - “finally breaking even and enjoying the cruising altitude” says Kinge who has transformed the women into breadwinners with monthly wages of up to $250. More importantly, the women are psychologically happier, have new skills, work in the safety of Kinge’s workshops surrounded with colorful products – while repetitive movements in creating handmade jewelry and accessories have had cognitive benefits for women who were otherwise hopeless, sitting idle and falling into deep depression.

“Sometimes in the  rare moments I subtract myself from this equation, and look at it as an outsider,” says Kinge.  “I ask myself, can I let go of something so precious and leave it uncared for? No. I shouldn’t. I can’t.”

The  international recognition of Kinge’s products – sold primarily outside Syria’s borders – have fully disrupted Syria’s business norms, breaking free and independent of the corrupt practices. The social innovation inspired others to replicate the concept, resulting in unprecedented collaboration with the International Trade Association and the Japanese government - “an incredible honor and a first in the world where a government and an NGO worked with an entrepreneur,” says Kinge who today employs a team of five managers in Damascus and three in Geneva as part of her Made By Women Association.

Since  Democracy Today’s “New Women of Armenia” project launch in 2000, 45 rural communities with women-owned and operated projects have been supported - creating jobs and elevating families from poverty.  Starting with 10 women in one village, three or four in other villages, the NGO supports women’s education in employment laws, human rights, gender equality, business plan writing, accounting, and finance.  After more than two decades of transforming women through tangible success with investments in micro businesses, women entrepreneurs have reached their potential – for their families, rural communities and inspired more women appointees to Armenia’s new government.  Shifting their self-worth, reinstated dignity not only for the women entrepreneurs but also for their unemployed husbands. Revolving funds for the last 15 years have galvanized 200 families with micro-businesses, bringing about a sea-change in perception, helping women recognize possible opportunities -- more importantly, discovering “new version of themselves.”

“Our  work with women entrepreneurs has changed men’s impressions of women’s abilities and opened new resources, adaptability, and creativity in new conditions direly needed to succeed in a market economy. I want people to believe in their unique, exceptional talents – to be obliged to use it to fight against all odds and to make this world a better place for us and our children,” says Shahinian who in October received the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) Rebels Against War – Anita Augspurg Award” in a ceremony in Verden, Germany.

Democracy  Today’s annual peace conference, attended by hundreds of women from across the globe, has become a landmark event of women peacemakers sharing experiences and offering insight, culminating with a Young Women’s Peace Award, inspired by the work of peace and human rights activist Anahit Bayandur (1931-2011), winner of Olof Palme Peace Prize. To date, 27 women have been awarded for their courageous work in promoting peace in Chechnya, Ingushetia, Ossetia, Dagestan, Russia, Armenia, Nagorno Kharabagh, Georgia, Iraq, Cyprus, Columbia, Syria, USA, Belgium, and Myanmar.

“Reaching  milestones is more like disappearing lines in the horizon – there’s always the next step. There’s no stopping now – we continue to forge ahead,” confirms Shahinian.

Having worked and  lived in Syria’s war zones and regularly traveling abroad to showcase products in festivals or present at UN conferences on the importance of social entrepreneurship in war zones, Kinge turns hopeless days into “resting and delegating to stay healthy – using the wisdom and the intelligence of the heart to make the next step.” Appointed a special consultant to the International Trade Association, Kinge continues her work with partnerships with a luxury cruise ship, and le comptoir de Syrie for distribution of I LOVE SYRIA bags in France.

As  UWC Dilijan celebrates its 5th anniversary in 2019, Zonabend plans to inaugurate Dilijan as an education hub, and hopes the 287 alumni from around the world will return to Armenia to “make changes here and in their home countries.” Hoping to be less hands-on in the future, she believes self-sustainable projects must be “inherited to the next generation of changemakers.”

“Each micro business BizGees  supports refugees to set up, helps the local community meet 7 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and well-being, Quality Education, Affordable and Clean Tech, Reduced Inequalities and Sustainable Cities and Communities,” explains Deo. “Our test loan has successfully generated one micro business for a refugee entrepreneur named Betsey in Uganda who has received training, inventory, and business mentoring to set up a successful micro-business. We are looking forward to seeing her take ownership of her own life and support others with jobs creation.”

Hoping to onboard a VC firm to provide financial support through the growth stage, for now, Deo focuses on delivering the desired outcome. 

“Being a social entrepreneur is the way forward.  It helps you sleep at night.  It’s no longer the case that social entrepreneurship does not pay.  Gradually the ecosystem is emerging where making money and doing good can be done at the same time. It’s no longer a contraction, but a more holistic way of building a business and adding value to the society,” affirms Deo.

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