Social enterprises are attracting foundations or investors looking to nurture companies that further good causes. But we shouldn’t underestimate the impact they can have on business performance as well.

Working With a Social Enterprise “Builds a Bridge to New Markets”

Interview with Marlon Parker, founder of the social enterprise RLabs, which was set up in the Republic of South Africa in 2009 to help disadvantaged people find jobs by training them in the use of the new Mobile technologies and social networks. Today, RLabs consists of an Academy and an incubator to enable members of this community to innovate and set up their own businesses. RLabs mainly makes its money by helping to develop a Mobile and Social Network strategy on behalf of its client companies.

L’Atelier: Why should a company whose main goal is not social business work with a social enterprise such as yours?

Marlon Parker: Quite apart from the opportunity to operate in a socially-responsible manner – which is not something to be ignored –  a company or organisation which calls on a social enterprise like ours will find this a way to get into new markets, new geographical areas, which it would have found harder to approach through other channels.  As far as we’re concerned, RLabs represents a large community to be found in 13 other countries such as Finland, Portugal, Malaysia and Singapore, so we can provide access to these communities. These are the benefits that companies are looking for.

But aren’t the services provided by a local incubation lab like RLabs too far removed from the needs of a company that has set up on another continent?

No, our tools and services are very often exportable. Working with us will, for example, enable you to make use of new tools developed by our members. In the various countries where we work, RLabs focuses on local communities according to their local needs. Innovation in Mobile has made great strides in South Africa because it suits the needs of this continent, where Mobile is very important. So these tools can help to boost companies’ growth and performance. Having said that, this doesn’t mean that innovation can’t be exported. JamiiX, a mobile instant messaging system that allows you to communicate from a single place on multiple platforms –  social networks, MSN, GTalk, etc –  which was developed here, can be used anywhere in the world.

I imagine this approach is also useful in terms of brand communication and image…. 

RLabs is a social enterprise which trains disadvantaged people and turns them around, gets them back into the community, back into society. Any company which decides to work with us is helping us to grow and so is contributing to the social project that we’re driving. And because we’re a supplier of innovative services and technologies we can expect to grow worldwide.  Working with us – and by extension with a company based on social responsibility – is going to bring gains in terms of image and reputation. Working with a social enterprise also helps your company itself to live and to grow. So it shows that you’re taking a really socially responsible approach and also demonstrates that this commitment is part of the values, the basic tenets, of your own company.

By Renato Martinelli