Sunny Yi-Han Lin is a second-year graduate student at the LBJ
School of Public Affairs, UT at Austin. Last summer she traveled to Taiwan through an internship to explore social innovation and social entrepreneurship.
This summer I did my internship with Flow, Inc., the first social venture fund in Taiwan aiming to incubate and invest in social enterprises. While I had to explain again and again to my friends what social enterprise is when I was in Taiwan, I found that my American classmates are very familiar with the idea. Some of my classmates have been even running their own social enterprises!
Taiwan, also know as Formosa in Portuguese meaning "beautiful (island)," is an island located east of the Taiwan Strait, off the coast of China and northeast of Hong Kong, and is home to about 30 million people. The shape of Taiwan is like a sweet potato seen in a south-to-north direction. Major cities with industries and commerce are in the northern part of Taiwan, agriculture in the southwestern part with plains, and tourism in the eastern part which has rugged mountains with fascinating landscapes.
It is widely agreed that the ancestors of current Taiwanese aborigines came to the island about 4,000 years ago. Then Taiwan went through Dutch settlement for 18 years (from 1624-1642) and Japanese colonization for 50 years (from 1895-1945), and has been under the government of the Republic of China right after the Chinese Civil War in 1945.
In the decades after World War II, Taiwan created rapid economic growth based on technology exports and was recognized as an advanced economy by the IMF and a high-income economy by the World Bank. The quick economic rise along with industrialization and modernization in the 1970s is also known as the "Taiwan miracle." The political system in Taiwan is very similar to the bi-party democracy in the United States, and Taiwan's political sovereignty dispute with mainland China has gained significant international attention over the past few decades. Taiwan's culture is a blend of traditional Chinese philosophy, Taiwanese aboriginal heritage, as well as Western and Japanese influences.
While social ventures are common in Europe and the United States, they are a new phenomenon in Asia. Before the introduction of social entrepreneurship by Flow, Inc. in 2007, most people in Taiwan perceived making a social contribution as doing traditional public service such as fundraising for philanthropic organizations, relieving people in natural disasters, or teaching children in remote areas.
Flow, Inc. was founded in Taiwan in June 2007 by Steve Chang (Chairman of Trend Micro, Inc.) and Tom Wang. Flow, Inc. wants to create a social enterprise sector in Asian countries. Once the new sector emerges, it can work with governments, for-profit companies, and NGOs to solve social problems. Flow, Inc. invests in and incubates for-profit social enterprise start-ups. Because the concept of social enterprise is still young in Taiwan, Flow, Inc. initially held a social innovation competition and many workshops nationwide to spread awareness. Now it primarily evaluates and selects social entrepreneurs it wants to provide strategic advice and funding.
Before Flow, Inc. introduced social enterprise to Taiwan, there were a handful of nonprofit organizations and businesses that adopted business strategies to solve social problems even though they did not identify themselves as social enterprises. The following are some well-known social enterprises in Taiwan operating either for-profit or not-for-profit.
For-Profit Social Enterprises
Ökogreen sells coffee beans from developing countries to promote fair trade and help poor farmers become economically independent.
Ginger 800 sells organic ginger-related products planted by ex-convicts rehabilitating from drug abuse.
Love Travel Co., Ltd. provides domestic and foreign travel services for mentally or physically disabled people. Special accommodations make traveling accessible to all.
Fushan Grange sells organic vegetables and fruits planted by Taiwanese aborigines who live in the less developed mountain areas, promotes community-based agriculture, and reduces the crisis of farmland gentrification.
Nonprofit Organizations with Socially-Driven Commercial Activities
Sunshine Social Welfare Foundation runs carwash services and gas stations to provide jobs to burned victims and physically handicapped people.
Children Are Us Foundation trains mentally disabled children with cooking skills to work in their bakeries and restaurants.
Private Victory Center employs mentally disabled people in data entry and design centers.
The Society of Wilderness organizes nature observation trips to increase environmental protection awareness.
Barriers to Overcome in Taiwan:
More and more people are starting to notice and want to work in this field, but they must realize that the current social enterprise environment in Taiwan is not mature. Three societal barriers have limited the development of social enterprise in Taiwan:
Lack of dedicated government unit to provide service to social enterprises. It is hard for social enterprises to look for resources and support from several different government departments, such as Department of Social Affairs, Department of Education, or Department of Environmental Protection.
Lack of specific policy and regulation on social enterprises. Existing policies and regulations are designed for either for-profit or non-profit organizations. There is no particular policy or regulation for hybrid social enterprises.
Minimal support from academia and the private sector. Few private firms provide investments, business consulting, and networking support to social enterprises. Currently there are only two research centers at universities focusing on social enterprise, and both are recently created.
Although the development of social enterprise in Taiwan is still at an early stage, I believe the people who have been working in the field could be the seeds of a larger movement, educating and inspiring the whole Taiwanese society. Taiwan will follow the footprints of successful social enterprises in the West and in the future, mobilize innovators to make social impacts across Taiwan and Asia.
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