By Youth Co:Lab and  SDSN Youth,

Over the past year, young social entrepreneurs have shown extraordinary leadership on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis. This should come as no surprise. Young social entrepreneurs possess a set of characteristics that make them uniquely positioned as leaders in the recovery journey. One year on, we must step up our efforts to support these young changemakers and to maximise their role in the recovery and beyond.

Youth Co:Lab – an initiative co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation – and SDSN Youth – an initiative of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) – have witnessed first-hand the central role that young social entrepreneurs have played in COVID-19 recovery.

These young leaders were among the first responders in pivoting their business models to address challenges brought on by the pandemic. They have proven their resilience not only in overcoming threats to their survival, but in offering solutions with transformative potential for recovery and beyond.

SDSN Youth’s Youth Solutions Report and Youth Co:Lab’s research highlight the traits of young social entrepreneurs that make them uniquely well positioned as leaders in the recovery journey.

Young social entrepreneurs are agile

Youth-led social enterprises tend to be more agile and more able to adapt to challenges. The initial results of Youth Co:Lab’s research conducted one year on from the pandemic show that 87 percent of young social entrepreneurs in Asia-Pacific have pivoted their business model in response to COVID-19. Globally, research shows that youth-led social enterprises are more likely than their adult counterparts to have adapted their business models.

Beyond helping to safeguard their survival, this agility has enabled young social entrepreneurs to expand the support they provide to their communities. For example, The Fusion Hub in Fiji was founded to upcycle waste. With the tourism sector being their main market, the pandemic initially hit them hard. Rather than letting this stop them, they focused on the increase in plastic waste stemming from COVID-19 and transformed themselves into a zero-waste company.

Young social entrepreneurs are digital natives

As digital natives, young social entrepreneurs have shown themselves better equipped to make use of online platforms during the pandemic. Initial results of Youth Co:Lab’s One Year On survey show that 93 percent of young social entrepreneurs have used mobile or digital solutions in response to COVID-19. A global survey found that in the immediate onset of the crisis, youth-led enterprises were more likely than adult-led enterprises to switch to online sales.

However, digital solutions do not just offer a coping strategy to the shock of COVID-19. Many young social entrepreneurs are using digital technologies to build new social contracts. For example, Shaasan, an initiative of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Nepal recognised by the Youth Solutions Report, is enhancing the transparency of decision-making and bridging the gap between government and citizens. Several of their initiatives, such as crowdsourcing of citizen concerns, proved even more pertinent during the pandemic.

Young social entrepreneurs are connected

Young people today are also more connected than any generation before them. They create and shape online and offline networks and communities based on common identities or interests. Youth Co:Lab research in the wake of COVID-19 showed how young social entrepreneurs’ close-knit networks enabled them to quickly connect with their peers and customers to co-design solutions.

By leveraging their networks and their trust with the communities they serve, young social entrepreneurs have huge capacity to reach marginalized groups who may otherwise be left behind. For example, Prism, a social enterprise from Thailand, provides an anonymous online safe space for the LGBTIQ+ community. Since COVID-19, Prism’s user base has tripled to nearly 30,000 as people experience higher rates of isolation. The capacity of Prism and other youth-led social enterprises to support marginalised groups will be critical in the recovery from the pandemic and beyond.

Young social entrepreneurs are globally conscious

More fundamentally, young social entrepreneurs are uniquely qualified to lead in the recovery journey because they have the greatest stake in the decisions made today, that will determine the future they inherit. Young people are most conscious of the global crises that we face.

Take the example of Moner Bondhu, a social enterprise supporting mental health in Bangladesh. Initially the pandemic posed a significant threat to their survival, as all in-person activities were suspended. However, Tawhida Shiropa and her team anticipated the even greater need for their services during the crisis. In just a few days, with the support of UNDP, they pivoted to provide free online tele-video counselling. From March to December 2020, they served over 18,000 people from all over Bangladesh.

In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we are at a tipping point to transform our societies and economies for the better – but we need young people’s energies and solutions to get there. Youth-led social enterprises supported by both Youth Co:Lab and SDSN Youth offer examples of the innovative solutions and inclusive organisations that we need to shift to a fairer, greener economic system.

However, they cannot do this alone. Initial results from Youth Co:Lab’s One Year On Survey reveal the significant challenges and ongoing vulnerabilities that young social entrepreneurs face, and their need for targeted support.

One year into the pandemic, we must step up our efforts to support young social entrepreneurs to lead the way in our journey beyond COVID-19 recovery, towards a more sustainable future. Otherwise, we risk losing the very enterprises that we need at the centre of our efforts to build forward better.

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To hear the stories of these four inspiring young social entrepreneurs in more detail, watch the recording of Youth Co:Lab and SDSN Youth’s online discussion on How Young Social Entrepreneurs Rose to the Challenge of COVID-19, held on 17th March 2021.

To learn more, see Youth Co:Lab’s COVID-19 response and read SDSN Youth’s latest Youth Solutions Report.

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This article was originally published on the Youth Solutions Report Blog 

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