Sparks in the dark – learning the lessons from social enterprise in some of the world poorest communities.

I keep saying it – one of the great gifts of being part of GameShift is that it gives me the chance to hang out with some amazing people.

This week we held one of our “pop-up” open events. This one was hosted by GameShift partner Alex Steele and his colleague Professor Josette Dijkhuizen. They were sharing stories and insights from their work on projects supporting social enterprise across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. And what great stories they were.

Stories were shared of social enterprises run by women, many of them refugees, others in rural communities. One of the women in the spotlight was Saba (pictured below), who started a lingerie store in her refugee camp, knowing that being a refugee doesn’t mean you stop wanting to feel your best. Other women ran projects running grocery stores and childcare centres in the camps. Another group of women created a community kitchen in their refugee camp, featuring traditional foods and a community space to encourage contact and conversation, knowing that people need to know they are not alone, that they are among friends. Another woman ran a craft-based enterprise, providing skills training and a commercial education for remote communities in her Jordanian desert workshop.

Saba – Photo by Prof Josette Dijkhuizen (used with permission)

The projects have included knowledge exchange, bringing female entrepreneurs from Europe to share ideas with women in Gaza and Palestine. They supported projects including Bright Brain Academy, providing digital education to kids in Gaza, and a fashion that has a special interest in addressing the loneliness and isolation of older people in Palestine.

Other projects ranged from Indonesia, Uganda, Venezuela and beyond – often helping to create micro-enterprises in some of the poorest and most remote communities. These businesses were often created to allow independence from aid support – helping to service local needs by creating vital products based on local commodities, from agriculture and food businesses to providing recyclable sanitary supplies.

Alex and Josette drew out six observations about the characteristics of social entrepreneurs they’ve worked with that they have found to be inspiring and useful to people in the UK and other European countries.

These social entrepreneurs:

  • Work with what they’ve got. They all accept that they have resource constraints and crack on with making the resources they do have work for them.
  • Show a “Yes, and” mindset. They look for value in everything and don’t rush to judgement too soon, so keep open the possibility of something good emerging.
  • Have a lot of “Beginner’s Mind”. They tend to be curious and open to experimentation, looking for possibility and asking great questions.
  • “Go slow, go flexible”. Often lacking the technology to move fast, going slow opens the possibility of seeing more of the system, noticing more opportunity, making more out of connections and understanding patterns that might go unnoticed at a faster pace.
  • They improvise. Often facing disruption and uncertainty, they’ve learned to work outside their plans and comfort zones. When things go wrong, they find ways to learn from adversity and make something work.
  • Serve a bigger purpose. None of the social entrepreneurs is in it just for the money. Yes, they make a living, but each of them serves a need in their community that is bigger than can be met just by selling a product. Many of the businesses create a human connection or directly serve a human need such as growth or health, and others funnel their profits into building stronger communities.


I left this pop-up event really inspired by these stories and delighted that Alex and Josette had chosen to tell their stories at this event. Every one of those six lessons rang true for me as providing valuable “guiding stars” for any of us to steer by in our own businesses, or in our efforts to create new possibilities in the organisations we work with and for.

I took away a handful of questions to mull on for myself, and I’m sharing them here:

Where am I putting off an initiative because I think I lack the resources? Where could I make more from the resources I have?

Where am I becoming a prisoner of my own expertise? What beginner’s question could open a new and juicy way of working for me?

Where am I going too fast? What am I missing that could be valuable to me?

Is there an obstacle I am not learning from? Where can I get a more interesting result by trying a bit more improvisation?

Am I really serving a bigger purpose? What would I do if I made that feature a bit more centrally in my work?


Juicy questions! Thank you Alex and Josette, and thanks to the amazing social entrepreneurs whose stories inspired us in this event.


Written by Chris Nichols, GameShift

April 2021