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Rethinking what it means to be an entrepreneur: embracing creative risk in the humanitarian aid sector

Think of an entrepreneur, and your mind may take you to board rooms and briefcases. You might imagine someone like Richard Branson or Steve Jobs, responsible for driving innovation in their sectors and making huge profits along the way. Its current definitions range from “a person who sets up a business or businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit” to “someone who starts their own business, especially when this involves a new opportunity”. Either way, the associations have traditionally been commercial rather than altruistic.

The term emerged in the 18th century to denote a person taking on a project or enterprise, from the Old French entreprende: to undertake. Even in those days there was an association with risk-taking and adventure, often for the purpose of economic development. In the 20th century, political economist Joseph Schumpeter saw the role of the entrepreneur as one of “creative destruction” – launching innovations that usher in new industries and approaches by destroying old ones, and doing things in new ways.

I looked into all of this because I often have a problem with terminology when describing what I do professionally, and when positioning myself as a long-time expert in my field. As soon as I tell people I founded a charity, they focus less on the start-up founder/leader aspect of this achievement, and much more on the c-word. There is an immediate change in how people – especially those in the humanitarian aid world – treat me. For some reason I’m viewed as less professional, less ‘expert’. I see this starkly because earlier in my career I worked for several well-known media brands. Their names had immediate cache: when I spoke to people in professional settings and told them who I worked for, I was instantly treated with respect and intellectual admiration.

But now – even though I’ve negotiated war zones and secret police to start up a social enterprise, winning multiple awards and raising millions for my organisation in the process – I appear to have slipped further down the power scale. People no longer assume that I have technical or professional skills in the same way they did back when I was working for those brands. They don’t expect me to be smart, savvy or tenacious. They don’t realise I’ve got extensive experience in international law, due diligence and banking. All of these things and more have been needed when setting up the charity (and subsequent start-ups). Yet my expertise is not valued in the humanitarian aid system.

I have tried to unpick why this might be, and I’ve come up with some theories. Previously I walked into rooms and meetings representing a well-known organisation. Whereas now I walk in with myself, and with an unknown brand. As a female person of colour I’m not well represented in the humanitarian aid world – or, if I am, it’s as a beneficiary of aid. So it becomes a transactional – and definitively asymmetrical – relationship and power dynamic: those receiving the aid, and those bestowing it. Meanwhile the whole system is designed in a way that distrusts smaller organisations. You can see it in everything from the reporting requirements to the bureaucratic hoops that start-ups have to jump through to receive financial support. My relevance is diminished down to what it is that I need; my skillsets remain unseen.

I think about the fact that the people we support via our work often have nothing. Many of them have lost their homes and families, or are being bombed. For example, in one of our projects we support fitting children with prosthetics, because they’ve had their limbs blown off. This is the kind of stress and responsibility we are dealing with while trying to do something very humane – helping fellow humans. It’s not for the faint-hearted. It adds another layer of complexity, emotional burden and extreme stress to the highly entrepreneurial work that we carry out. Charities problem-solve in the face of some of the world’s greatest challenges – from war and civil strife to the climate crisis. We are making decisions in the most difficult of situations.

I want to be thought of as an entrepreneur and risk taker, because that reflects my skillset and the work I’ve been doing for the past decade or more. But I’m not recognised in that way. Because the reality is that a candidate on The Apprentice who set up an online retail business from their bedroom can be afforded more respect as an entrepreneur than I am. What I do does not hold the same value.

So I’ve learnt to change my terminology. To spell things out a bit more. To emphasise the entrepreneurial mindset required when starting an organisation from scratch. The resourcefulness, the problem-solving, the risk-taking, the imagination, the leadership. I want this to get the recognition it deserves. Maybe this way we can also rethink the entire humanitarian aid sector, using the same qualities to facilitate the “creative destruction” that Joseph Schumpeter spoke of, and create change in the current system in the hope of doing things better in the future.

Ummul is CEO and co-founder of Capoeira4Refugees, RealtimeAid, and tech start-up Frontline Aid. She is an advocate for race, equality, female leaders and localisation. She is currently writing her first book.

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash.

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