From Activism to Entrepreneurship in Romania

We just returned from an inspiring retreat with a group of 10 social enterprises (SEs) in Romania, that we attended through our partner organization NESsT.

In much the same way that SEIF supports social enterprises in Switzerland, NESsT incubates a portfolio of SEs in several Eastern European and Latin American countries. We contributed a full day workshop on the topic of customer experience to the retreat, which included other interesting topics such as human resource development, and leadership.
We were struck by a number of distinctions in the SE ecosystems of both countries, which differ partly based on history. Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium, several Eastern European countries received substantial amounts of development aid from the EU and the United States, and this led to a proliferation of NGOs. For the past decade, many of these NGOs have been striving to secure their long-term stability by building business models to support the social causes that they are engaged in. These organizations are often led by the NGO founders, who believe passionately in the causes they are engaged in, and who have succeeded to build large and diverse teams through a combination of philanthropic funding and revenue generating activities.
We started the gathering with site visits to two companies: Concordia and Project Mosaic.
Concordia in Romania started as the daughter organization of Concordia Foundation based in Austria, and provides residential homes for more than 400 vulnerable children in Romania. The children attend public schools, but many of them have trouble to integrate into the workforce upon graduation. Concordia therefore offers a number of practical job training programmes in the areas of agriculture, woodworking, and food preparation. They are developing two of these activities into social enterprises, in which they are offering two year work integration placements to their beneficiaries. One of these is a bakery in which they produce organic bread from high quality and locally produced ingredients. The second is a small farm that is producing fruits and vegetables, as well as pleurotus mushrooms.
Project Mosaic is also the daughter organization of a foundation that provides living and work integration solutions for people from vulnerable groups. Project Mosaic currently has 12 employees, who were beneficiaries of the foundation and other partner organizations. They make custom mosaics for individuals and business clients by cutting and assembling ceramic tiles into new and beautiful arrangements.
Other organizations involved in the retreat spanned diverse fields of activity, including a center for arts and culture, a company promoting rural and authentic travel in the Romanian countryside, and an archiving service. Despite their different history from many Swiss enterprises, they face many of the same challenges as other SEs globally: how to create innovative products and services and sell them to their target customer segments, how to manage human resources as their companies grow, and how to access finance for scaling once they achieve a proof of concept. Five of the enterprises present at the retreat will be visiting Switzerland in August, and we look forward to sharing our experience in the Swiss ecosystem with them.