Best Place in the World for Social Entrepreneurs?

By James Norris, a social entrepreneur that works (and plays) in the space between personal change and social change. He is based out of Singapore and can always be found building a social enterprise (or two).

“Where’s the best place in the world for a social entrepreneur to live and build a social enterprise?”

That is a tough question. It appears there are two schools of thought when it comes to attempting an answer: go close or go big.

Some people believe that a social entrepreneur should be physically near to her target market. If she is working on poverty alleviation, then perhaps she should be in a city like Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Or if she is fighting air or water pollution then maybe Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Then there are those of us who think that a social enterprise with the greatest potential for global impact requires a very specific type of climate to flourish. A few factors deeply matter: access to talent, access to funding, access to markets, a good business climate, and a supportive culture. From that perspective, highly developed cities rise to the top.

When I asked my social entrepreneur friends for suggestions, they threw out a lot: Boston, Cambridge, Copenhagen, Delhi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, London, Manila, Mumbai, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Singapore, Stockholm, Vancouver, and many others.

This clearly was not going to be easy.

The answer for any particular social entrepreneur will clearly vary depending on what industry they are in, how they reach their target market, whether they are suitable for venture capital funding, as well as a host of other factors.

But for a general answer, my research pointed me to three places: London, Silicon Valley and Singapore.

London is home to some of the world’s most prominent social powerhouses: The Young Foundation, Social Innovation Exchange, School for Social Entrepreneurs, UnLtd, among others. It is certainly a contender.

Silicon Valley is the world’s poster child for entrepreneurship. Its appeal to entrepreneurs globally is self-evident. It has an extraordinary amount of talent, money, and energy.

But…the future is in Asia. I place a lot of weight on this claim. If you are a social entrepreneur thinking 10 or more years out, Asia cannot easily be ignored.

Let us talk about Singapore. Two years ago I was on a trip around the world with one of my mentors. He was consulting; I was trying to determine where I should base myself as a young social entrepreneur. At the tail end of our trip we landed in Singapore, ostensibly for a brief visit. It had caught my attention as a travel destination and I was fascinated by the beauty of the city, diversity of culture and its outstanding Singapore hotels such as Raffles Hotel. Singapore is relatively small but I was overwhelmed by the variety of things to see and do. I wound up staying for two weeks to study the social innovation and entrepreneurship sector. I was impressed. Within two months, I had moved to Singapore and was working in the field. That was after one of Singapore’s most prominent social entrepreneurs told me point blank to stay in the United States where there was “more opportunity to do good”. Perspective is a funny thing.

To answer the original question, I would say Silicon Valley is currently the best place for a social entrepreneur. But long-term, I have placed my bets on Singapore. Here is why it is already a great choice:

Access to talent

  • High standards of living which draws talent in.
  • Liberal immigration laws.

    Access to funding

    • Lien Centre for Social Innovation’s $1M Lien i3Challenge.
    • Enterprize’s Social Biz Challenge with funding up to $588K.
    • Impact Investment Exchange Asia, which is Asia’s first social stock exchange.
    • Growing venture philanthropy community with networks such as Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN), Social Ventures Partner (SVP) Singapore and SE Hub.
    • Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports’ Comcare Enterprise Funds grant of $300K grants for social entrepreneurs employing disadvantaged Singaporeans.
    • National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre’s New Initiative Grant of $200K to enterprises focused on volunteerism or philanthropy.
      Ranked #1 in Asia for philanthropy.

Access to markets

  • Geographically situated between three of the largest markets in the world: China, India, and Indonesia.
  • Airport ranked #2 in world with multiple discount airlines flying the region.

    Good business climate

    • Ranked #1 place in world to do business.
    • Very low corporate income taxes and zero tax on first $100,000 for first three years.
    • Tied for #1 for lack of corruption.
    • Spring Singapore, Enterprise Development Board and the Ministry of Trade and Industry Singapore and other effective government bodies actively work to support enterprises.
    • Ranked #1 at protection of intellectual property .

Supportive culture

  • Approximately 150 existing social enterprises.
  • Social Enterprise Association, a dedicated umbrella organisaton that supports social enterprises.
  • Multiple dedicated social entrepreneur co-working spaces being built by The Thought Collective and private individuals.
  • Dedicated academic institutions such as the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, National University of Singapore Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy, Grameen Creative Lab at National University of Singapore.
  • Established academic programs in social entrepreneurship like the Diploma in Social Business and Enterprise at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
  • is an online community-edited directory for the social sector (“a Wikipedia for people who care”).
  • 5 million people concentrated in a very densely populated space that doubles as international travel hub creates an innovative melting pot of ideas.

      The downsides include:

      • Very small domestic market.
      • Financing for small to mid-sized social enterprises may currently be difficult past pre-seed stage.
      • Risk-averse society.
      • Singaporeans are unaware of social entrepreneurship (only 12% have heard of the term).

But none of that should hold a talented social entrepreneur back.

Things would really start to get interesting if 100 additional foreign social entrepreneurs built their companies here. Better still, 100 additional locals decided to do the same.

Singapore is a great place for social entrepreneurs now and will likely get even better. It even has a shot at becoming the world’s first “Social Silicon Valley”. Time will tell.

What do you think? Where would you like to live and build your social enterprise?