The Olympic Potential of Social Enterprise


The Olympics show us what happens when we unlock the power of human potential. Social enterprise can help us do this year-round.


As the Olympics draw to a close, the world will come together one last time to reflect on the past three weeks – the medals that were won, the records that were surpassed and the athletic feats that were accomplished.


But the spotlight on the 2016 Olympic Games consistently shifted from sports stories to larger stories of triumph. This year’s Olympics gave birth to the world’s first refugee team, with athletes who have survived warfare and displacement. Meanwhile, Olympians like Ibtihaj Muhammad, Simone Manuel, Wayde Van Niekerk and Katinka Hosszu brought attention to barriers created by Islamophobia, racism and sexism. And it was the first Olympics held in South America, turning the world’s attention to Brazil and its rapid ascent on the global stage.


When the Olympic torch is extinguished, let’s remember the Olympic spirit of unity and possibility that created these stories of opportunity. Let us strive as global citizens to continue to fight for fully-realized potential, open-mindedness and second chances.


One model that’s demonstrated particular effectiveness in addressing issues of unrealized opportunity and unmet basic needs is social enterprise. By marrying the market-driven approach of a business with the social mission of a non-profit or government program, social enterprise is a financially sustainable, inclusive, replicable model that has taken hold worldwide. Social enterprises work every day to create opportunity for all, develop the skills and abilities of underserved communities and create solutions to the world’s most intractable problems.


Take Better Shelter, a Swedish social enterprise selling a flat-pack structure that’s more spacious, durable and portable than conventional refugee tents. Through a partnership with IKEA Foundation and UNHCR, Better Shelter has provided thousands of displaced persons with “a safer, more dignified home away from home.” As a social enterprise, Better Shelter uses smart design, innovation and technology to achieve their social mission.


Another example is Everly, which uses a donate-back social enterprise model to contribute a portion of its profits to support a cause. Everly sells natural, sugar free drink mixes to consumers looking to quit soda and drink more water. A portion of the proceeds from each purchase goes to Everly’s nonprofit partner, ColaLife. In turn, ColaLife provides packets of life-saving rehydration mixes to children sick with waterborne disease in rural Zambia. In this way, each time someone purchases a box of Everly, they make a donation of rehydration salts possible, fostering health and wellness worldwide.   


Another social enterprise, Nisolo, seeks to provide artisans in Peru, Mexico and Kenya with international market access, above fair trade wages, skills training and safe working conditions. By selling these artisans’ ethically produced handmade shoes, jewelry and leather goods, Nisolo connects consumers and producers in the global marketplace.


These social enterprises are a year-round answer to the issues of injustice, inequality and poverty brought to light during the Olympic Games. Their secret lies in their ability to see opportunity and potential where others only see hurdles.    


Events like the Olympics and Paralympics are a time for us to come together and marvel at what happens when we unlock the power of human potential. But it’s not the only time this can happen. As the closing ceremony nears, the world can look forward to another global event bringing together people from all walks of life – the Social Enterprise World Forum. This September, social enterprise practitioners from all across the world will come together in Hong Kong to learn from each other and think of ways to further support the growing field of social enterprise, ultimately making more stories of triumph and opportunity possible for years to come.

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