Bistra Kumbaroska is the kind of person that can wrap a room with her enthusiasm and love for people. She is an experienced social entrepreneur coming from the friendly lands and waters of North Macedonia. Bistra loves everything green, natural, and authentic. But unlike Tolkien’s Hobbits, she enjoys having a life of adventure!
Bistra lived in Slovenia, where she participated at the Challenge:Future initiative, then she moved to Vienna, where she added value to the Impact Hub Vienna and the Social Impact Award. Bistra and her partner are currently residing in Slovenia, after a year in Belgrade. Amazingly, before all those years of traveling and meeting all kinds of socially oriented organizations, she became one of the core drivers of a movement in Macedonia that resulted in today’s most popular youth portal in the CEE Region, Mladi Info.
I admire Bistra’s drive and also her realistic approach to social impact, social innovation, and in general, to social entrepreneurship. Her background, experiences, Bistra’s connection and understanding of the regional (CEE) ecosystems for entrepreneurship are the building blocks of a unique and valuable point of view, as you’ll find out after reading her answers to my questions:
Bistra, what change is the COVID-19 helping us to craft?
The coronavirus situation provides an opportunity for many of us to stop, pause, take a breath, reset, and, hopefully, step up. For many of us, it is also a painful time, a time of additional restrictions, frustrations, and even stronger need to fight back. As Otto Scharmer puts it, “Disruptions essentially confront each of us with a choice: (1) to freeze, turn away from others, only care for ourselves, or (2) to turn toward others to support and comfort those who need help”. That choice between acting from ego or acting from ecosystem awareness is one that we face every day, every hour, every moment. My only vision, at this stage, is that whatever comes next, we will make sure that it is something we can all participate in designing, using an upgraded democratic process across the globe. Every individual step we take must be firmly rooted in presence, compassion, and unity, not only with humans but with all living species. We will not be merely prototyping, but we will find a joint culture of regeneration that will shift capitalism into something that serves the magnitude and diversity of life to the fullest.
Dear Bistra, from your vantage point, Is all the available theory relevant to developing successful ventures?
[Context] There are many different ideas, definitions, and frameworks around the topics of Social Impact, Social Entrepreneurship, Social Innovation, Social Enterprising.
It depends on many aspects: firstly, on cultural context, business environment, education environment, and the like – and secondly, but most importantly, the entrepreneur (mindset, learning style, values, intention). I’ve met and worked with lots of research nerds who made a successful business model and read thousands of books and articles in the process – and I’ve worked with entrepreneurs who have no interest in theory and made it to be successful social entrepreneurs. A very modest (and possibly inaccurate) observation of mine would be: entrepreneurial spirit has nothing to do with theory. In my experience, the drive to be a social entrepreneur never comes from theory – but from a pressing need that, in many cases, appears impossible to solve. However, theory or research or frameworks do help in different stages – and they usually offer a structured approach to the next steps, they can give the compass to the entrepreneurial guts.
I’ve done a lot of training for social entrepreneurs, and one thing I always try to remind everyone about is that every advice you get is autobiographical. So there is no formula, there is no pathway to success. Whatever I or anyone else tells you, take it with a “pinch of salt.” Think about it, question it, internalize it, find its best use for your own case. To sum up: theory helps you build structure, the structure can be helpful to reach success, but it is not always necessary. What I consider essential is to get the idea out there, do the MVP, test, involve beneficiaries and clients in the processes, and create enough learning loops (they are never enough) to inform decisionmaking, especially when it comes to the business model.
What do you think Social Entrepreneurs need to have in their toolbox to increase their chances of success?
[Context] Social Entrepreneurs are known for their strong motivation; many are clear about their Why. In terms of developing economically sustainable organizations, they often find challenges.
Social Entrepreneurship is becoming a new industry;
It would be easy to conclude that social entrepreneurs are navigating in uncharted territory.
Social entrepreneurship might be looking like a new industry; I wish to see the day when it becomes the only way for industry and business. In times of COVID-19, we are witnessing the sudden push towards more sustainable and responsible business making. I firmly believe that different circumstances (if not internal, but external) will push the economy towards developing new ways of earning money, creating value, measuring success, etc. Nowadays, social entrepreneurs need more encouragement and support, because they see no other option than to function in an old-economy system and yet, create value that goes beyond profit, while still depending on the profit margins to survive and grow their impact. If entrepreneurship is like walking on high heels all the time, social entrepreneurship is said to be like walking on high heels and backwards at the same time, so, no toolbox will help you in this, but learning a few processes, might be useful. Of course, it’s always better together with a lot of mirrors, a team, people, and a lot of courage. The processes that will help “walking on high heels and backwards” might affect your way of thinking, your way of dealing with fear, your management style, your way of measuring impact, or simply, how to build a P&L (profit and loss statement) in a spreadsheet. The best way to get on board with those is to apply for a support program to help on your way: whether Impact Hub programs, Ashoka, SIA, Skoll, GSEN, or Innovation for Change network.
A toolbox, as such, does not exist, but currently, our team is developing a simplified DIY toolkit, an online platform called goodbizbox, that can help entrepreneurs to discover and manage their impact through a 15 station, gamified process. We hope to launch by the end of this year, and we are excited to test, adapt, and learn what’s possible!
What do you find as a common denominator among ventures that succeed despite their local limitations?
[Context] You have seen different ecosystems in different countries, some more advanced than others. And you have seen successful ventures despite their ecosystems.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation does a lot of research on the best countries or ecosystems for social entrepreneurship: and I always find great pleasure in reading their findings because ecosystems DO matter; they offer an environment of development, growth, and success. In parallel to empowering individuals to take action towards social entrepreneurship, we have to challenge and change the systems to better support and enable this type of work.
However, aside from existing research and theory, I’d like to share one of my first encounters with social entrepreneurship. I went on a trip to Rwanda in 2013, and I visited the Musanze area, where I met several young (18+) entrepreneurs coming from low-income families and, in most cases, had to develop an enterprise because of necessity. This type of entrepreneurship is also visible in my home country. What was different in Rwanda compared to North Macedonia was that the entrepreneurs in Musanze developed almost always business with a social mission and had no intention of calling it a social business because, for them, it was just a business. We are talking about an internet cafe with five computers, where every day for 2 hours, single mothers are given internet time for free so they can learn basic digital skills that they might need for their future or in case they get employment in that cafe. Or we are talking about a wine production site, producing wine from fermented pineapples – all manually produced, bike delivered, and what we would call: earth-conscious production process. All of these businesses are thriving now, according to the founders themselves. But they didn’t scale or get an impact investment or went to pitch events – probably, they did not get any kind of support in their process of growth. They are successful because they pay the bills, employ the local community, and offer a meaningful change in their local reality. These are the types of businesses I love working with, and I admire them a lot. But the other part of the shift that we need is the large, scalable, social businesses that will urgently push the system towards new ways of creating and capturing value. We need the “TOMS,” the “VEJA” s, the Grameen Banks, and all those large social businesses that not only change the local environment but have the power to influence the global systems. In most cases, the later ones need ecosystem support of some kind – or are connected to expert pools or networks that supported their growth. I wouldn’t say that’s a rule – but it definitely played a role when aiming for a large-scale system change.
How important do you think fundraising is to a social venture?
[Context] Different people understand fundraising in many different ways, but there is almost always a connection with the world of NGOs. In contrast, Tech startups have no problem with the idea of finding investors to fund their ventures. In the world of SMBs, it is common to bootstrap the business operations, and the need for investment or fundraising doesn’t come until the company needs to scale up.
In every business model, there are three core components: producing value (your product/service), delivering value (making it available for use or sales) and capturing the value (charging for your product/service in the form of money, or exchange of goods, etc.) In most of the countries of CEE and Africa, where I worked, I found social entrepreneurs struggling with the “capturing value” part the most. Many reasons explain why that is, one I will mention here is the bare fact that social business models are more complex as they might involve beneficiaries who are different to the organization’s clients (differentiated business model, ex. Fairphone) or integrated business models (where beneficiaries are employees of the business, ex: Shades tours) or in many cases, businesses that serve clients who have little to none A2P (ability to pay). Then fundraising comes as a crucial skill in cases where social entrepreneurs have to provide services to a target group that is not able to pay (marginalized groups, street animals, etc.). But at the same time, we need to be aware that fundraising offers an “open business model” where beneficiaries and donors have minimal if any, direct contact with each other and the field of impact. Also, professional fundraising can be pretty expensive. So, social entrepreneurs need to use fundraising very carefully since following donor requirements and reporting can sometimes confuse or derail the entrepreneur’s initial mission or intention. Probably, the best option would be to try out a hybrid model where fundraising or grant applications are being made but, at the same time, keeping the focus on “capturing value” from your clients, beneficiaries in some way. While we see many examples where grant funding is beneficial for starting a social business, we also have to observe a trend of “getting used to grants,” especially among social entrepreneurs in Europe. This is not to say that those social businesses are not doing fantastic work. Still, we have to be aware that the change in business models will not come from us falling into old patterns, like working with donors, following NGO fundraising logic, etc. But instead, combining those old wagons patterns with something new and in that way, building new examples of sustainability and impact.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” And the way I interpret his message is that entrepreneurship is about learning to make our dreams come true. Bistra’s answers make me think that our collective dream, to live in a compassionate and inclusive civilization, is about taking action despite our perceived disadvantages and limitations. Social Entrepreneurship isn’t a competition; it is a movement for change.
Interviewed by Jose Antonio Morales
Social innovator, entrepreneur and poet, Bistra supports individuals, organisations and companies in combining innovative tools to grow their impact. In 2008, she became one of the core drivers of a movement in Macedonia that resulted with today’s most popular youth portal in CEE Region, www.mladiinfo.com. Her passion for entrepreneurship took her on a journey through Europe, Sub-Sahara Africa, and South-East Asia, supporting the creation of meaningful jobs for youth, supported by European Commission, UN PRME and other international partners. She has been involved in the creation and scaling of more than 5 networks and entities across different industries in CEE and has organized, facilitated and shared her experience at more than 132 international events and conferences so far. Largest events she organized include International Civil Society Week 2019, CEE Impact Days 2017-2018, Social Impact Award Summit 2015-2018, Social Innovators Conference 2016 etc. At the moment, she serves as managing partner of Vienna-based agency Heartbeats Innovation & Communication. Her work is focused on innovations in community management, international events, responsible business models and organisational design.
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