SOCIAL ENTERPRISE – Good business medicine from Sir Ray Avery

18 July 2017

The Social Enterprise World Forum comes to New Zealand in September. Sir Ray Avery gives a taste of the advice he will be sharing as one of the main speakers.

What is a true social enterprise?

A social enterprise is designed to be sustainable and help society at its most fundamental level. For instance, at Medicine Mondiale we made a choice that we will only develop products around healthcare.

If you have a commercial company and it keeps doing capital raises to stay afloat then there is something wrong. The same thing is true for social enterprise. If your social enterprise keeps having to function as a charity, it’s not really a social enterprise. Have you got it right in terms of customer statement of need? Can you provide them with the answers to their problems at the right price? Have you got a system of distribution and a sustainability plan? If so then it all works.

How do social enterprises enhance innovation?

The very nature of modern social enterprise is disruptive. The status quo isn’t coming up with new ways to develop businesses that are profitable but still fix and absolute social need.

How big a role is social enterprise playing in our economy?

There are a growing number of social enterprises that are swaying the balance of innovation and global thinking. But we are very slow to adopt anything that’s really innovative. It’s a strange process. If you think back, only 30 years ago it was okay to smoke on airplanes! Now the most dangerous part of an airplane is the pilot. That is where most of the errors occur. But most of us wouldn’t get on a plane with an algorithm computer instead of a pilot. The law of “Innovation Adoption” means it takes us a long time for us to adapt to disruptive innovations.

How has your approach to social enterprise evolved over time?

I had a catharsis in Eritrea. I was sent there to build a factory to make lenses to address the backlog of 53 million people with cataract blindness. If we could make the lenses cheap enough we could make modern cataract surgery accessible to everyone.

Everything in Eritrea was munted and I was about to walk away from the whole project. Because it couldn’t be done. It was technically impossible. There was no cement works and no municipal water. Then when I was queuing to use the phone to say I wasn’t going to do it I saw this kid. He had half his face missing from Napalm burns. I had never seen war up close and personal. I knew that nobody was going to help him.

I thought perhaps that’s why I was put on the planet, to try and use the rest of my life and all the skills that I’ve got to make a difference. That was the beginning of Medicine Mondiale and my commitment to make the world better than I found it.

We got the lenses into 80 countries and right now there are about 15 million people who can see, because we developed a social enterprise that really works.

What have been the major challenges?

I don’t see the world in terms of challenges.

There’s always going to be things you have to fix. But if you have got the model right, then there’s no problem there.

It’s like Steve Jobs said: “Those people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.” It’s the belief you will get through whatever the problems.

I have come to a stage of mind where I am all Buddharesque in a sense that great happiness and great sadness are both imposters – you just get up and do your thing. Above all don’t have a wasted life.

What would you say to young people embarking on a similar pathway?

Most people don’t have a plan. I know I have got about 4,575 days left to live and I am doing something with them. If you don’t have a plan you abrogate your life to chance and random events.

I recommend setting a 10 year plan. And then you check yourself against it, don’t lie to yourself.

It’s about personal empowerment. Our education is predicated on you remembering a load of stuff. The reality is you can find all that stuff in a second on Google – so why would you bother memorising it?

At school they give us all a badge and create a natural competitiveness. But we have to get through that. Nobody is as clever as all of us. Let’s work as a team. Let’s work up something that is really cool and change the world.

What other things at the forum you are looking out for?

Often it’s a happy accident when you meet somebody who has another part of the puzzle. You might have an idea about something and they have the next part of the puzzle. It could be an idea, a system or a product you can adapt. You might find another volunteer. You might meet somebody that knows somebody in a country where you are working. They could provide what’s needed to get the project moving faster. Because you have a plan you look out for these people and hopefully can convince them to make a difference. Great leaders create great leaders.