A collective workspace called La Ruche (“beehive” in French) has just opened its doors to host social entrepreneurs in the heart of the Canal Saint Martin in Paris. Home to some 20-odd entrepreneurs on a membership basis at present, the attractively renovated open space will ultimately welcome 60 entrepreneurs when renovation is completed in the autumn, as well as provide space for events on social innovation and a Bistro Equitable open to the public serving fair-trade produce.
But what is a social entrepreneur? I had no idea there were so many definitions. Some say it’s an entrepreneur who is driven in equal part by desire for social change and profit. Others call it charity’s Web 2.0. Author Paul Hawken says it “refers to activists who use entrepreneurial methods to address systemic social problems”. The Skoll Foundation defines it as “society’s change agent: a pioneer of innovation that benefits humanity”. Wikipedia says: “A social entrepreneur is someone who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create and manage a venture to make social change”.
Definitions aside, there is no doubt that this is a fast-growing sector whose influence on the for-profit world far outweighs the scant attention it receives in the media. As La Ruche co-founder Charlotte Hochman puts it: “This is a shop window for what’s coming next.” Not surprisingly, La Ruche has been nurtured from the outset by two of France’s leading business schools, Essec and Insead. Similar workspaces in other countries include the Hub in London and Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation.
How does it work? Like a gym membership. You rent full-time or part-time access to the space and services. “It’s more a place to meet than anything else,” Hochman told me, adding that demand for the space has already outstripped availability. Right now there are 20 odd entrepreneurs working on projects ranging from a recruitment agency dedicated to cultural diversity, a business which is developing alternatives to detergent and one which focuses on balancing the work and personal sphere from an organisation’s point of view. When the renovation is completed this autumn, there will be a total capacity of around 60 entrepreneurs.
The founders are setting up a steering committee to filter selection for the next round, using selection criteria such as a project’s potential social impact, its financial autonomy as well as a balance between eco-innovation and social innovation. Half of the 1400-square-metre space will be for entrepreneurs, and the other half will be used to organise events around social innovation, as well as a fairtrade café-bistrot and common spaces for social entrepreneurs.
Hochman says “demand for a place for social innovation is huge in France” and notes that she has already received requests to open similar spaces in the provinces.
Here’s a video from Bill Drayton, one of the pioneers of the social entrepreneurship movement and the founder of Ashoka. Arnaud Mourot, who is director of Ashoka France, is also president and a co-founder of La Ruche.