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Opinion: In praise of Ireland's social entrepreneurs, making waves in a pandemic

Siobhán O’Keeffe of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland outlines the important work many entrepreneurs with a social conscience have been doing in the last year.

Siobhán O’Keeffe

MOST PEOPLE WILL  understand entrepreneurship as a commercial term meaning the bringing about of change when change is hard. Social entrepreneurs are people who develop new, innovative solutions to address the entrenched social and environmental challenges we face.

They are society’s problem-solvers – people who are courageous, ambitious, entrepreneurial, and passionate about social change. Social enterprises are businesses that aim to achieve a social, societal, or environmental impact.

Some of the initiatives we have supported at Social Entrepreneurs Ireland include those focusing on improving mental health, education, environmental initiatives and social inequality.

Ireland has changed and improved immensely in the past 15 years since we began, but many social challenges still remain. We have found that sometimes those with the most effective solutions to social issues are people who have experienced these challenges head-on. The ones who have sprung from the depths of real challenges themselves will develop inspired and innovative solutions.

This continues to ring true throughout the pandemic. We have seen people in communities across Ireland stepping up and developing innovative ways to care for people, reduce isolation, and keep our society going throughout this crisis.

In particular, we have seen a number of social entrepreneurs and SEI alumni respond to the added challenges society is facing during Covid-19.

The wellness shift

These entities are a relatively low-profile component of Ireland’s business sector and our six-part docuseries, Changing Ireland: My Big Idea, which aired last year and was produced for RTÉ One, just scraped the surface of the impact these businesses are having throughout the country.

Mental health is one important area where our need as a society has increased during the pandemic and where Ireland’s social entrepreneurs have responded with their innovative solutions.

MyMind is a social enterprise, founded by Krystian Fikert, that provides community-based mental health services that work towards giving everyone equal access to affordable mental health support without stigma or delay.

SEI has supported Krystian and MyMind since 2009. Over the past 12 months, MyMind has significantly expanded its online counselling service. In partnership with the HSE, it’s is offering free online counselling appointments to people all over Ireland directly affected by Covid-19, delivering than 35,000 sessions last year.

Another social entrepreneur who is very conscious of the knock-on effects of Covid-19 on mental health is Shirley Gleeson, founder of Ecowellness Consulting – an organisation that upskills mental health practitioners throughout Ireland in nature-based intervention to support individuals experiencing mental health problems.

Prior to establishing Ecowellness Consulting, Shirley worked as a social worker and recognised the need for greater awareness around the benefits of nature and green spaces on wellbeing.

With daily walks and exploring our localities within a 5km radius becoming so pivotal to our happiness during these challenging times, Shirley has been adapting the Ecowellness workshops and delivering them online.

She applied to the SEI’s Ideas Academy in 2018 with the aim of refining her solution and further developing Ecowellness Consulting. To date, she and her team have trained more than 60 professionals in nature-based interventions and are currently mentoring 30 forest therapy practitioners.

Fellow Ideas Academy graduate, Toufik Messabih, founder of Lib is currently providing free, culturally sensitive counselling to asylum seekers and refugees across Ireland in a number of languages. Lib’s services and support programme focus on rekindling the flames of resilience and hope and are being delivered via email, video chat and phone until in-person sessions can resume.

Since receiving seed funding through the Ideas Academy in 2020, Toufik has piloted an art therapy programme for children living in one direct provision centre and hopes to extend the programme to three more centres by the end of 2021.

As Covid-19 persists, the delivery of mental health supports is just one need we face as a society. We will require a lot more ideas and solutions to these very real challenges as we respond to the evolving pandemic and continue to tackle existing social issues.

Community-wide challenges

Redistributing food that would otherwise go to waste (FoodCloud), developing Autism friendly towns, supermarkets and universities (AsIAm) and providing frontline speech and occupational therapies to children with additional needs (Sensational Kids) are among other ideas and solutions currently being rolled out by alumni of SEI.

From our experience, we know that not everyone will recognise themselves as a social entrepreneur right away but we also know that every day, individuals throughout the country come face-to-face with, or are living with, the challenges caused by social issues.

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We are currently encouraging potential social entrepreneurs to apply for our Ideas Academy, which is aimed at those who have early-stage ideas and are looking to begin their social entrepreneurship projects, and our Impact Programme, which is aimed at high-potential social entrepreneurs looking to grow their impact.

This year’s theme for our call for applications is ‘See the challenge, be the change’, inspired by our alumni who have developed innovative solutions after having been faced with or witnessed the impact of some of the challenges we face as a society. We’re looking for people from all backgrounds who need support to realise their vision. In times of adversity, our people are our greatest asset.

Siobhán O’Keeffe is Interim Director of Impact. Applications for the Ideas Academy and Impact Programme are open until midnight tomorrow, 7 April. Interested candidates can apply or find out more at www.socialentrepreneurs.ie.

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Siobhán O’Keeffe

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