A Ukrainian social entrepreneur and key supporter of social innovation in the country remains defiantly optimistic despite the continuing Russian invasion, attendees at the EVPA conference in Brussels heard yesterday.
Anna Gulevska-Chernysh, co-founder and chair of SILab Ukraine, which promotes the development of social enterprise and social innovation in the country, described running a demo day during a blackout – and said her team were “still learning” how to do their job during war-time.
But, she said, war had also prompted “a lot of new business ideas”. Before the invasion, SILab had planned to launch Ukraine’s first social venture fund, as part of a programme supported by EVPA. This had to be delayed, but in its place is a smaller incubation programme providing grants. It has backed five ventures including one that developed a course to help displaced people in Ukraine quickly learn IT skills; and another that helps Ukrainian refugee women overseas to make a living through knitting.
In early March, Gulevska-Chernysh told Pioneers Post how her team of seven women had pivoted their activities – switching rapidly from delivering accelerator programmes and mentorship to social enterprises, to coordinating a humanitarian effort. At the time, she highlighted the urgency of supporting the country’s 100,000 displaced people.
Since then, millions of Ukrainians have fled their homes. The social entrepreneur remains focused on the displacement crisis, but she and her colleagues are now able to think about “effectiveness and results and impact”.
“In March, we could plan for only one week or two weeks ahead. Now we’ve started again to plan months, six months, 12 months [ahead] – we’re already speaking about next year.”
Asked what impact investors in non-conflict zones might learn from her experience, Gulevska-Chernysh said she and her colleagues were “learning, learning, learning – because the conflict is not over”.
Her advice to investors, however, was to be ready: while war was a tragedy, it also offered an opportunity for businesses and for donors to step in with solutions. Because of the war, SILab’s grant fund – now at €800,000 – had tripled within nine months, she said: a Swiss foundation and another funder have provided capital. SILab has also added new team members to manage the challenge of a fast-growing fund.
‘Everything is different’
Speaking alongside Gulevska-Chernysh at EVPA’s ‘Impact Week’ session on Thursday were three other investors with experience in conflict zones.
Simon van Melick from Spark, an NGO that supports higher education and entrepreneurship in fragile states, said working in such contexts was “a super-ambitious job”.
“Everything is different to what you normally would expect it to be. Whether you are an investor, or a trainer or whatever, everything’s different. You have to be very open, flexible, agile and patient.”
You really have to ask yourself the question: who are you actually supporting?
Working in fragile and conflict situations meant learning to “continuously think outside the box”, he added. Instead of trying to get banks to lend to young refugee entrepreneurs, for instance, Spark supports fintech startups who can provide loans.
Van Melick also shared one hard-learned lesson: “You really have to ask yourself the question: who are you actually supporting?” A Spark project that was achieving “great results” relatively easily turned out to be supporting only the “elite”. “We were not supporting the young people that actually really, really needed it,” he said.
Painting a future
Gevorg Poghosyan, CEO at Impact Hub Yerevan, said Armenia had three different kinds of impact investors, requiring different kinds of engagement. International investors needed to know that their investments would remain viable: “You need to bring them real risk models… real measures that are taken for them to ensure that their investments will continue working for them.”
Local investors often shifted quickly to donating money when conflict first arose, but it was important not to forget about their sustainability and to ensure they would continue investing as much as possible. For diaspora investors – the most active ones in the case of Armenia — there was a chance to “transform their emotions into investments”, Poghosyan said, but it was important to continue momentum and keep them investing.
Very often conflict is born out of despair… investment funds like Kampani can create perspective that tomorrow is going to be better than today
Asked if investors and entrepreneurs could influence conflict – and not just be influenced by it – Wouter Vandersypen, executive director of Kampani, an impact fund focused on entrepreneurial farming in Africa, Asia and Latin America, said: “Absolutely, yes.”
“I follow the logic that prosperity breeds peace, and peace breeds prosperity,” he said. “In the types of context where we work, very often conflict is born out of despair. So I do believe that investment funds like Kampani can paint a future, give people purpose in life, create perspective that tomorrow is going to be better than today.”
Pictured top, left to right: Wouter Vandersypen, Simon van Melick, Gevorg Poghosyan, Anna Gulevska-Chernysh (credit: EVPA)
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