Leadership & Productivity

Social entrepreneurship: Why the ultimate goal is 'shutting up shop'

15 min read

21 May 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

What does it take to become a successful social entrepreneur? For some, you need to leave your ego at the door, for others, it's about being prepared to close your business once your goal has been fulfilled.

In the world of modern business, you’ll find a lot of people claiming to be ‘social entrepreneurs’. But how many really care about fixing a deeply rooted societal problem over a desire for profit?

Homelessness: The most challenging problem for social entrepreneurs?

Homelessness feels like one of society’s last big issue to fix. The factors are numerous, and include poverty, dealing with governments, as well as issues surrounding substance abuse and mental health. All this makes tackling the problem an intimidating feat.

Undoubtedly, people working in the charitable sector struggle with this mammoth task, but how about people who are also trying to make a business out of it? We recently met two social impact entrepreneurs who are unafraid of the challenge.

Chivas Venture 2019: A competition for social impact entrepreneurs

Dimitris Vassiliadis and Cemal Ezel are both tackling homelessness via their respective businesses.

Recently, the two met in a concrete jungle on the banks of Amsterdam’s river Amstel last week to discuss how they’re making a dent in homelessness through social enterprise.

The event in question? Chivas Venture, (an annual competition funded by whiskey brand, Chivas Regal), that brings together impact entrepreneurs, celebrities with a social conscience, and global journalists to shine a light on businesses that are bridging both profit and purpose to create a better world. Ezel, (last year’s grand winner), has returned to judge the final stage, whilst Vassiliadis is a finalist.

Dimitris Vassiliadis, Founder, Giving Streets

Giving Streets is empowering homeless people by helping them build up their finances. Source: thisismoney

“By 2023, we want to provide 20 million meals, and more than 1 million stays in hostels for homeless people. We’re about first response work, if you need us, we’re there.”

One founder creates an idea, but it takes a ‘family’ to build a business

“It all started when I was working in the City of London,” says Vassiliadis. “I used to go back and forth between Liverpool Street and Aldgate. But I couldn’t ignore the contrast between the people in suits and those rough sleeping,” he adds.

“Whenever I wanted to help someone out, I reached in my pocket but like many people these days, I had no cash or spare change, we are such a cashless society, so it’s tough to help homeless people out, even if you want to.”

At this point, Vassiliadis turned to close friends to help build the business idea, “we all came together and just asked the question, ‘what can we can do about this problem?’ We combined our expertise, we are all technical people, so we decided we could help solve the issue through tech,” he adds.

Empowering mindful and impactful donations

“The app empowers homeless people to be in driving seat of their own destiny,” says Vassiliadis. “It also puts the donor at ease because we can moderate the transactions which mean donations will not be used for things like alcohol purchases.”

“The homeless person is our primary concern,” continues Vassiliadis, “we ensure that they are not invisible. Through our business, we’re allowing them the choice of having their own financial identity meaning they can have agency over their financial planning, and financial lives.”

Social impact built by blockchain

“We wanted the platform to be open to the public so that donors can see where the donations are going,” says Vassiliadis.

“This provides accountability. For example, a donor can look at the app and say, ‘this week I’ve donated £10 in ten different places, and the money went towards helping a homeless person buy groceries in a supermarket or spend a night in a hostel’.”

Expanding his business model

Not only is Vassiliadis a compassionate entrepreneur, but he’s also an ambitious and commercially savvy one, and is keen to expand his existing business model beyond the homelessness remit, “there’s definitely potential to go beyond the social impact element,” he says.

“Part of our long term business plan includes potentially providing the service for buskers, which is another demographic that’s being affected by the cashless shift,” he continues.

“Last year, over £300m’s worth of donations to UK charities were spare change donations,” says Vassiliadis, so perhaps if charities used our platform, they could bolster the amount of money they could raise too,” he adds.

Peer to peer lending is also a space that Vassiliadis can see a commercial opportunity in, “this space is vast,” says Vassiliadis,” I believe that our technology can also help this section of people become more mindful about how they’re spending and how much they are spending,” he continues.

How secure is the platform?

“All the transactions all guaranteed,” says Vassiliadis. “There’s zero chance that any transactions could be lost or compromised, and blockchain has really helped aid that level of security.”

However, in terms of wider commercial impact, has Giving Streets come at a convenient time? “I believe so,” says Vassiliadis. “I think people are starting to move outside the banking remit framework.”

“The beauty of our technology is that we can connect with any sort of open API in terms of tax authority because we’re totally transparent and have accountability outside the banking system,” he adds.

Chivas Venture: The power of networking and exposure

“I’d known about Chivas Venture for a while,” says Vassiliadis.”I liked the fact they only considered social impact companies. We wanted to alleviate our profile, and I also liked the fact they offered ‘no strings funding’ to the winner, which means they can grow quickly, and grow in the way they want to,” he continues.

“As a company, Chivas Regal aligns with our values completely, so entering their competition meant that we didn’t have to lose sight of our company mission or change our business model to appeal to them.”

Why Chivas Venture is a ‘catapult’ for business exposure

Since we interviewed Vassiliadis at the Chivas event, the competition’s winner has been announced as Javier Larragoiti, Co-Founder and CEO of Xilinat, a Mexican company that converts agricultural waste into a sugar substitute.

Vassiliadis says that whilst it’s a shame they didn’t come out on top, the networking opportunities have been valuable, “it’s been life-changing,”says Vassiliadis. “Even when we got to the local finals of the competition in the UK, it elevated our profile massively,” he continues.

“We became known to many more people, we were even invited to attend an event at Downing Street. So, when people ask me whether the experience with Chivas has been a passport to success, I tell them no, it’s been a catapult!”

The power of mentorship and advice

“It was amazing to meet Cemal and to discuss the potential for collaboration,” says Vassiliadis. And no wonder, their businesses have similar goals, namely to eradicate homelessness in an economy-boosting and sustainable way.

“He was part of the judging panel that brought us forward as a UK finalist for the big prize,” he continues. So, did Ezel offer the Giving Streets team any tips for success?

“The biggest inspiration I took away from meeting Cemal was to keep on being committed and remain inspired by your goal because your goal is far bigger than any challenge you’re going to encounter,” says Vassiliadis.

Cemal Ezel, Change Please: Transitioning from founder to CEO


Ezel’s goal is to ‘shut up shop’ in five years. Source: tbd.com

“100% of our profits go straight back to combating homelessness. We supply our coffee to gym chains and Virgin trains, it’s all about how we can change supply chains in business to do good.”

For Ezel, his early vision for tackling homelessness was to overcome people’s “paralysis of decision”, namely the moral conundrum a passerby feels when they walk past a homeless person, where the inner monologue goes,’ will they spend my money on food or shelter, or will they spent it on drugs or alcohol?’

Understandably, this train of thought may be seen as unfair or even judgmental by some, but they are common thoughts nonetheless, and crucially, they stop many people from helping homeless people out.

Bottom-up impact: Tackling homelessness from the ground up

“I saw that the demand for coffee was going through roof in the UK, so I thought, why don’t we facilitate that demand?” Ok, you can solve homelessness through building more housing, but you’re not solving the employment issue that homeless people face,” says Ezel.

“By going down the employment route, we’re stimulating direct action,” he adds.

“Government hand-outs or random donations aren’t the answer. You’ve got to rely on business to do good, we sell our coffee products to corporate offices, we supply gym chains even Virgin trains, we also supply the coffee to Chivas,” he says.

But Change Please does more than employs homeless people to produce their coffee products, “we’re serious about finding, training, and upskilling these people for the long-term,” says Ezel.

“We provide housing and a bank account, we also give our staff access to therapy and support throughout their employment, including when they get a job for six months afterward.”

Impact entrepreneurs are stronger together

“I’m sure other entrepreneurs have already told you this, but the networking at Chivas Venture is incredible,” says Ezel.

“Last year when I was competing, I met an advisor for Obama, and what she can’t tell you about social business, I don’t know! Because of that connection, our company’s social media presence went up, simply meeting and connecting with her opened doors that I never thought could be opened,” he continues.

“Ultimately, what social businesses need is an opportunity to gain exposure and show the world what they do,” he says.

“My ultimate goal is to shut the business in five years”

How did the competition make Ezel a better leader for his business?

“Chivas gave me the support and education to transition from a founder to CEO, ” he says.”They’re very different roles and skill-sets, it’s not a natural process,” he says.”You could risk incurring losses for your company if you don’t understand how to manage the transition,” he continues.

“It’s important to understand ‘how to let go’ as the founder. But that was never was a big issue for me because our goal at Change Please is to close up shop in 5 years,” says Ezel. “So letting go is the ultimate marker for success with what we’re doing.”

A social entrepreneur must avoid the pitfalls of ‘ego’

“Wanting to eventually close our business might sound strange, but it’s our ultimate goal for there not to be any more homeless people on the streets in the future. So that makes us different to purely commercial businesses that are completely profits driven, and therefore want to go on forever” he says.

“The founder might think, “I’ve built the business, I’ve made the money, therefore, I should retain control no matter what. That’s not the case with us. I’ve never claimed that I know best,” says Ezel. “Making a positive social impact isn’t about a founder’s ego, nor one person’s abilities. Success for us is eradicating a problem for good, not making profits because of a problem.”

“What’s the beauty of social enterprise? It’s the fact that the goal is bigger than any individual person, it’s about solving a problem and eradicating it, it’s about fulfilling a mission for good.”…