Replication – An uphill battle?

27 Jun

Replication becomes a moral imperative for social entrepreneurs. Once we find out that we are making a difference in our communities we have this undying desire to replicate our idea. Most, if not all, social issues are global, and a good solution can travel anywhere, with some caveats. We know through experience that global aging is posing challenges to all developed countries. In places like Japan & Italy the growing senior population comprises over 30% of the population. This aging wave affects may aspects of society: work, retirement and healthcare among others. So why not introduce our idea to them? While it makes common sense, for an idea to travel many factors must be in place. Capital, connection, understanding of regulations, the culture and language are critical if we are going to be successful. These were the issues we confronted when we tried to bring our program to Japan last year. While both parties agreed that it could be transplanted and we were both eager to do it, several obstacles had to be overcome.

Last year, through the Ashoka network, we discussed introducing our model to a very prominent woman that started a large nursing home business in Japan. She was interested in bringing about a less institutional model like ours. There were few if any regulations in Japan that would prevent implementing such a program, no competition exists and the government could reimburse for services through their healthcare/pension plans. However, for our program to work, we needed to overcome some major barriers like language and raising the capital to establish relationships in such a close knit culture. Overcoming the language problem (only 3% of Japanese converse in English) required the hiring of a full-time interpreter. We also needed to employ an agent so we would have a direct presence there. Trying to raise capital in Japan became difficult as there are today very few foreign investors. The initial investment proved to be too onerous for us.

Raising capital for our social ventures is an arduous job, absorbing a big chunk of our time. We knew that when we started and that was the main reason we decided to create a for profit company. We were also in a hurry and could not wait the time it takes to create a non-profit entity. Our first contract was the most difficult. Once you have created a successful and replicable model, it becomes easier to sell to others. There are no blueprints and no road maps with a new idea and a lot of non-believers. We took three steps, first: change individual behavior, second: create a successful program and third: change national policy so we can replicate with ease. We never wasted the opportunities that this global crisis offered us. From the onset we knew what we wanted to achieve and what outputs we needed to derive (number of people served, cost efficiencies, operating margins) and the impact we wanted to effect (change the way we care for low income seniors). From day one we established clear outcomes and collected data to measure progress. Performance management became our principle. When you provide data to mission driven people, the results are profound and these measurable results are essential if we are going to obtain capital needed to scale.

Connections and collaborations were a turning point to our small firm. We have never acted alone, but we realized that we needed to be connected to a larger network if we were going to make a difference. These connections are not easily made; it takes a lot of time and effort to achieve. Becoming an Ashoka Fellow in 2010 opened a multitude of doors and connections that have propelled our mission inside and outside the U.S. We formed a Board comprised of private investors and successful business owners that have guided our steps, re-engineered our firm and paved our way to the corporate world.

My years of working in government made it possible for our firm to change national policy. I understood how it works as well as their reluctance to deal with social issues. My approach in understanding regulations, culture and language has always been to understand before asking to be understood, respect and a sensible approach has served us well so far. We would have thrown out many babies with the bathwater if we were not able to work with the government as an ally.

Every single day for the past sixteen years I wake up in the morning and ask myself a simple question, if not now, when? 

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