13/03/2017 - 13:47

Rise of the social entrepreneurs

13/03/2017 - 13:47


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OPINION: The history of the 40under40 charts the changing dynamic in business in WA.

OPINION: The history of the 40under40 charts the changing dynamic in business in WA.

The 40under40 Awards’ 16-year history represents an extraordinary period during which Business News has highlighted and rewarded entrepreneurial behaviour.

As I have done in the past, this year I have taken a data-journalism approach to visualising where our winners come from, starting from the beginning of the awards in Western Australia in 2002.

Graphically, what that shows is a change in the type of winner, including a quite dramatic skew towards those in the arts and community areas, often known as ‘social entrepreneurs’.

Our First Amongst Equals winner for 2017, Jahna Cedar from Gumala Aboriginal Corporation, is one of eight of these. A well-trained indigenous person with corporate experience, Ms Cedar has opted to take the reins of an important organisation, which was created to manage the money derived from native title royalties. In some ways it is a hybrid of a business, not-for-profit organisation and a government agency.

Others in this space will be recognised for their social entrepreneurship while having other for-profit enterprises operating in the background.

Perhaps the most startling observation from this visual representation of the winners – bearing in mind some winners do not fit neatly into the categories I have decided on – is the diminishing role of once-dominant players such as property, financial services and, to a certain extent, retail and personal services.

Maybe that is fitting. The economic downturn of the past two years has hit those sectors hard, and many entrepreneurs in those fields will have pulled their heads below the parapet as they fight for survival.

Perhaps, however, those fields are increasingly mature in WA and much harder for younger people to break in to, as they seek to create a meaningful business and be noticed before they hit 40 – like Paul Blackburne did last year.

Or maybe there is just a different point in both the economic cycle and industry development when younger people with new ideas tend to emerge, as an older generation fades and new concepts disrupt the status quo.

Even technology has slid somewhat in terms of pure tech entrepreneurs featuring in the 40under40, like Nathan Buzza in 2003. When he won, his nurse-calling service was revolutionary. These days the underlying software and hardware is commonplace – you have probably been given a buzzer at a food service outlet to tell you your order is ready.

Technology is now more a tool for those seeking to crack open an existing market. Let’s face it, no-one will be starting an ISP from their family home like Michael Malone did when he started iiNet. The opportunities are elsewhere – but they are quite likely using a service such as iiNet’s to communicate with their customers.

Oddly, the resources sector has always had a limited place in the 40under40. Big winners such as David Flanagan and Bill Beament have given the awards profile in mining, but they are among the few young people to make it in mining as business leaders. Is that because of the capital required to create a truly significant business?

Going back to my first observation – the rise of social entrepreneurs and their increasing presence in our 40under40. Is this because more of these people exist in the world, or because more of them enter our awards?

In answer to the first part of that question, there are definitely more social entrepreneurs. Although the term has existed for decades, it became more common currency only the past handful of years (Business News’s archive shows we first used this term in 2002 with just 10 mentions prior to 2009) as the idea emerged that money was not the only profit motive.

It might be fair to say that this coincided with a rise in acceptance of philanthropy and the desire of a younger generation wanting to do something meaningful amid the abundance of the boom. It may be that this burst of entrepreneurship is just another cycle within WA’s broadening economy.

In looking at the latter part of my question, Business News places great importance on its reportage of community and the arts, so it is possible we invite greater participation from that sector in our awards. Nonetheless, I would argue it has become a more significant and sophisticated part of the business world over the past 16 years.


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