GLI recently organised a visit to Shanghai for Japanese Networkers. Social entrepreneurs, Tanabe Yutaka, the founder of Sign Language and Shi Zhian, the founder of Social Innovation Osaka made the visit last November. They visited local social enterprises and NGOs, and have communicated with GLI Networkers in Shanghai, university students and other social organisation members.
Both felt the enthusiasm and vigor of Chinese university students towards Social Entrepreneurship and shared experiences with growing social enterprises in China.
Tanabe graduated from the Law Department of the Central University. He worked in an automobile company and a foreign consulting firm. In 2003, Tanabe established Forest Practice, the first consulting firm whose clients were social enterprises. Motivated and inspired by the fact that his sister married a blind and deaf man, Tanabe set up a social enterprise that aimed to develop the employment market for the disabled and provide psychological health care services for them. He named it Sign Language.
Shi Zhian is the third generation of overseas Chinese in Japan. He retired from business aged 50 and is now engaged in environmental protection and social entrepreneurship affairs based in north west Japan. He has done all of this to link China and Japan.
On Nov.5, Mr. Tanabe and Shi Zhian went to Fudan University to speak at a conference organised by CODE (Center of Dream Enterprise). Later they talked with Fudan students as part of a Q&A session and shared advic and experiences in students’ start-up projects. GLI Executive Director Fan Li and other GLI staff were present.
During the 45-minute speech, Tanabe shared three points with the students in English.
1. How to be a social entrepreneur: How to keep a keen eye on social problems and how to set up a business as a social entrepreneur.
2. Experience in setting up Sign Language: Find new employment opportunities for disabled people with impaired vision by means of providing on-site massage services for corporate staff.
3. World trends on social entrepreneurs: Share opinions on talent cultivation, fundraising, practical activities and real social problems which social entrepreneurs focus on. He took the Social Enterprise Conference held by Harvard Business School as an example.
Sign Language has raised great interests among the students. This cause not only cared about the underprivileged blind and deaf people, and helped them regain the sense of belonging to the society, but had gained a great amount of social focuses, which will contribute to its future development. A lot of students present took part in the Competition on Social Enterprise Project initiated by AIESEC, among which a lot can learn from the Sign Language.
What was really impressive was that two of them realised the problem of unbalanced development between urban and rural areas in Shanghai. The low income of rural citizens has not deterred them from attempting to run a business centred on traditional handicrafts of Nanhui to generate incomes for the local people. They have faced lots of challenges in practice. Tanabe was impressed and moved by the passion, execution power and innovation of the Shanghai students. He continued to have deeper talks with them and wanted to do what he could to help them.
Tanabe thought that it was most important to cultivate social entrepreneurship and pay attention towards social problems and the influence of this spirit to be passed onto the others. He was curious about the students’ initiatives on social enterprise and what kind of social problems they want to deal with.
Tanabe appreciated a lot about the energetic and passionate atmosphere, which is hard to find in a Japanese university.
In the afternoon of the second day, Tanabe and Shi visited a Shanghai social enterprise Home Sweet Home which was founded in 2005 by a Malaysian lady who has lived in Shanghai for more than 10 years. The enterprise provides accommodation, skill training and job opportunities to homeless disabled people in Shanghai.
That night, Tanabe and his companions joined the 9th GLI Networkers’ Salon which was held in Arch. Arch is a very special place integrating a cafe, bar with a multimedia projection room and such environment made salon more relaxed and active. There were 15 participants in total, mainly from enterprises and media.
Tanabe firstly introduced the establishment of Sign Language, the concept of social entrepreneurship and Social Entrepreneur Conference in Harvard University. Because most participants were company employees, the questions they raised were more commercial. Many GLI Networkers asked the questions around the theme of competition.
If confronted by competitors, which includes those social enterprises similar to Sign Language and commercial enterprises the question of how Sign Language could survive and keep developing was discussed.
Similarly when competitors provide services at a lower price, how can Sign Language deal with it? Frankly, Tanabe admitted that competition had already arrived. Some companies have entered the market of massage, but he is not worried about this because the deaf and blind have many advantages. They can focus all their attention easier than other people and their sensitive fingers can detect people’s physical conditions during massage.
These advantages and the quality of services can help win over consumers. Although the cost of Sign Language services is slightly more expensive the company provides an excellent service. Secondly where social entrepreneurs differ from entrepreneurs is that social entrepreneurs concerns social innovation.
Tanabe revealed that he would welcome the competition if other social enterprises serving for blind and deaf people join in the market, because this would increase job opportunities for the deaf blind people. And he will keep seeking new ways to help physically-challenged people. GLI Networkers from enterprises said this answer made them understand the difference between social entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs and cleared their doubt about social entrepreneur’s choice between economic and social interests.
November 7th was the last day in Shanghai for the two Japanese social entrepreneurs. Accompanied by GLI staff, they came to Pudong in the afternoon to attend an exchange conference held by Non-profit Incubator. The NPI staff, I am your eyes volunteer team (original name All people of Love) and other representatives from other organisations came together, sharing practical experience and feelings with each other.
Tanabe concluded characteristics in different stages of social enterprises’ development according to his own experience. Specifically he touched on some points about crossing ‘The Valley of Death’ at the beginning of projects. Representatives raised many questions about practical operations, such as how to make a reasonable profit for social enterprise and how to select their existing form, etc. Tanabe patiently gave his views in detail.
At the I am your eyes conference volunteer team representatives were deeply inspired by Sign Language’s business model. With the same goal, I am your eyes hopes to collaborate with Tanabe to widen their mindsets and to help over 10,000 blind people develop their own business of office massage in Shanghai. Tanabe was greatly touched by the disabled representative’s passion. He also hopes to help Shanghai social enterprises develop with his own power and help blind people blend into society better.
After the conference, Tanabe presented a Japanese tennis racket and special tennis ball which were designed for blind people to I am your eyes representative as a gift. All stated that they will go beyond the limitation of languages and create better communication and collaboration.
Despite heavy rain, Tanabe attended the Hands on Chengdu fund-raising banquet in Bridge 8 in the evening. This banquet was to raise funds for a creative project that deliver old containers to Sichuan Province and transform them into community center. Approximately 200 people participated in this activity.
Story: Jeanne Zhu
Translation: Bob ZHOU, Chris JI, Xuechang WANG, Xin WANG