WANTED: Social entrepreneurs in Hong Kong

Hong Kong photo by Herry Lawford

Hong Kong is pumping HK$500 million into social enterprise, but where are all the social entrepreneurs? Tom Cropper reports from the city's Social Enterprise Summit

Those who know the film Field of Dreams might remember James Earl Jones and his insistence that ‘If you build it, they will come’. This could prove to be the mantra of social enterprise in this city. 
In terms of infrastructure everything is set up quite nicely. The government appears to have identified social enterprise as an area of huge growth potential; over the next few years it will pump HK$500 million (around £50 million) into the sector.
The corporate world is doing its bit and is keen to fold in social enterprise as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility remit. However, there is one magic ingredient missing in all this – and that’s the social entrepreneurs themselves. 
Throughout Hong Kong’s summit on social entrepreneurship, the number 450 is repeated time and time again – that’s roughly the number of social enterprises that exist in the city, of which only a handful could be considered seriously investible.
“We are lacking ideas,” admits Dr Jane Lee, chair of the organising committee. “It is difficult for some young people as there is a huge amount of competition out there and the pressure is on from parents to simply get a safe job. Even so there is something in the spirit of young people that they see something that is wrong and they want to put it right.”
There is plenty going wrong in the city, wherever you look. For all the tall skyscrapers and the outward appearance of wealth there is a distinct feeling of unease around this city. The economic recovery, such as it is, has failed to trickle down to the majority of the population who continue to see stagnant wages, cramped housing and little chance of advancement.
Around 60% of the population continues to live in cheap government-provided accommodation (or cupboards as we call them in the UK), and the universities only have space for around 20% of students.
As the gulf between rich and poor grows wider, the sense of inequality grows. In previous ages it’s the kind of environment in which people would start erecting barricades and lining up the city’s wealthier people against walls, but these are different times.
Instead, people are looking around for solutions and social enterprise presents a compelling alternative. The summit was full of people from all walks of life, from students to professionals in regular business who were looking to do business themselves more responsibly.
The challenge is to take those ideas and get them on the road to becoming fully fledged social enterprises. As Cliff Prior of Unltd said during his speech to the summit: “There are around 450 social enterprises in the city. What we need is something closer to 4,000.”
Work is being done to get people on the road. As well as that $500m coming from the government and corporate support there are a growing number of incubating initiatives being set up to try and foster growth among start-ups.
The Hub model, a global network of locally owned collaborative working spaces, has been transplanted lock stock and barrel in the form of the Good Lab, which is trying to become the small white light at the epicentre of the nascent social enterprise community. 
Other organisations such as the Yes Network exist to provide mentorship and support to those who have an idea and want to see if it can become a social enterprise.
So, the support is there, but without enough social enterprises there is a danger that this is a magic opportunity for Hong Kong and social enterprise in general which is in danger of being missed. The ground is fertile for any new social entrepreneur whether from Hong Kong or from abroad. In other words, they have ‘built it’ – the only question is whether they will come.