Hero Stories | Alexandre Lourié: “It makes you happy. I think that’s a good enough reason to be a social entrepreneur”

ByOlga Sajin

Hero Stories | Alexandre Lourié: “It makes you happy. I think that’s a good enough reason to be a social entrepreneur”

We uncover the essence of social entrepreneurship with Alexandre Lourié, the International Managing Director of Groupe SOS. His passion for social entrepreneurship is a deliberate progression, forged at the intersection of the common good and entrepreneurial spirit. In this episode of DevelopmentAid’s Hero Stories, Alexandre sheds light on the most pressing social issues and how Groupe SOS is pioneering impactful change. Discover more about the challenges of quantifying the immeasurable, reimagining resource distribution in the development aid landscape, empowering social entrepreneurs globally, and finding profound joy in the meaningful work they do.

DevelopmentAid: As Europe’s leading non-profit in social entrepreneurship, Groupe SOS is crucial in addressing societal challenges. Can you share the broader importance of social entrepreneurship globally and how Groupe SOS contributes to a more sustainable and socially responsible future?

Alexandre: When asked about my personal profile, I mentioned that I find myself at the intersection of the common good and entrepreneurship, and I believe Groupe SOS exemplifies this intersection perfectly. For a long time, there has been a binary view dominating the world – either you rely on the state or public authority, or you embrace so-called ruthless capitalist entrepreneurship that is solely focused on profit. Both models have their limitations: public entities may lack efficiency and agility, while private ventures often neglect to serve vulnerable groups due to their unattractiveness from a profit standpoint. This realization has led me to believe in a third way, exemplified by Groupe SOS and its €1.5 billion impact-driven annual budget.

We prioritize entrepreneurship for the common good, social impact, or whatever label we choose to give it.

We operate centres that serve vulnerable demographics such as the elderly, individuals with disabilities, endangered youth and asylum seekers. We also run work integration programs, museums, organic farms, reforestation projects, and more, spanning across 50 countries and involving 22,000 employees. This comprehensive approach underscores our commitment to creating meaningful social impact.

DevelopmentAid: With such a diverse array of activities and opportunities aimed at creating societal change for the common good, how does Groupe SOS measure the impact of its social entrepreneurship initiatives?

Alexandre: This question is perhaps the most significant one I’ve encountered because it addresses why I wake up in the morning. As a social entrepreneur and leader of a social enterprise, my performance indicator isn’t profit – it’s impact. While measuring profits is straightforward due to sophisticated financial accounting standards, assessing impact remains a developing area. Let me illustrate with an example.

We operate Acta Vista, a work integration enterprise that focuses on restoring historical monuments. This initiative embodies the essence of Groupe SOS’s mission – granting access to France’s historical treasures to individuals who are marginalized from the employment market. And it’s fantastic. We hire and train individuals who are far removed from traditional employment opportunities, fostering a sense of inclusion and purpose. McKinsey conducted a social return on investment analysis on Acta Vista, revealing that for every person we hire, we generate €10,000 for the public through reduced unemployment allowances and increased tax contributions. However, this analysis only scratches the surface of our impact. The true value lies in the intangible benefits: bolstering self-confidence, instilling pride, bringing peace within families, and promoting social cohesion in regions grappling with high unemployment rates.

I wake up each morning to help people to feel proud of themselves and connected to their cultural roots. The impact we make isn’t just about numbers.

It’s about the friendships formed among team members who once doubted themselves but now find pride in their work, especially when it involves restoring historical monuments. There’s also a cultural and artistic impact as we revive abandoned monuments, allowing people to reconnect with their heritage and history. But how do you measure pride? How do you quantify someone’s connection to their culture and past? It’s tough, but it’s what really matters. I’m not here to crunch numbers for public authorities.

DevelopmentAid: Your enthusiasm and fulfilment shine through as you discuss the work you’re engaged in. It’s truly inspiring. While I want to underscore the organization’s work, I also want to highlight how this interview reflects your own personality. In what ways does your role contribute to fulfilling Groupe SOS’s mission and objectives?

Alexandre: As you said, there are two aspects to consider: what I do and how I do it. Essentially, my role involves leading international activities for the group which involves overseeing 500 employees across 50 countries. My primary objective is to maximize our multiplier effect. While in France, our focus is primarily on direct beneficiary care, our efforts abroad revolve around capacity building, advising, and advocacy. We aim to empower local players to become the best versions of themselves, thereby driving systemic change. To be specific, our NGOs specialize in various areas such as ecology (like Planète Urgence), healthcare (like Santé Sud), youth and sports (like PLAY International), and inclusive economy (like PPI and PULSE). We also share expertise through think tanks and consulting. My role entails leading this group of social enterprises that are dedicated to driving systemic change and capacity building without substituting for local players. We are gradually transitioning certain activities to local partners, whether it’s reforestation or sports programs.

Now, regarding how I do it, I wear two hats. One is to be an entrepreneur. I launched my first social enterprise while still a student a decade ago and relish in launching new ventures to address unmet needs, like when we initiated a program in Romania to support Ukrainian refugees when the conflict started with our social enterprise, “Ateliere Fara Frontiere”. This included addressing challenges like welcoming 100,000 refugees in a country unaccustomed to such influxes.

Finding new solutions like these is something I truly love.

Secondly, I embrace a corporate managerial role, I manage managers – the general managers of our social enterprises. My approach is more akin to being a coach than a referee. I strive to help them to become the best versions of themselves, believing they know their social enterprises better than anyone. I’m here to support them to thrive rather than micromanaging their actions because, ultimately, they understand the nuances of their operations best.

Photo Credit: Groupe SOS

DevelopmentAid: How do you strike a balance between your managerial responsibilities, which involve handling technical and administrative tasks, and your ambition to drive impactful initiatives? Sometimes, it’s easy to become absorbed by the administrative aspect and lose focus on driving initiatives forward.

Alexandre: Bureaucracy stands as one of the greatest threats to development aid. While that may sound harsh, it’s undeniably true.

The time, money, and energy invested in bureaucracy detract from resources that could otherwise be allocated to projects in the field.

As a social entrepreneur in the development sector, I face rigorous contractual obligations that demand meticulous attention to donors’ funds. My utmost priority is to optimize efficiency. However, the reality is that navigating bureaucratic processes consumes significant time and energy. Striking a balance between managerial duties and driving impactful initiatives is about seamlessly integrating both aspects simultaneously.

To excel as ecological reforestation entrepreneurs, one must dive into understanding carbon market regulations and reforestation audit criteria, which is crucial for ensuring the longevity of our projects and fostering donor trust over time. Bringing access to healthcare in remote regions like Madagascar or Tunisia demands a profound understanding of the healthcare system. It necessitates connections with the intricacies of the system, including the availability of doctors and the effectiveness of community-based healthcare agents.

DevelopmentAid: What are some of the key challenges that social entrepreneurs, particularly those associated with Groupe SOS, face in today’s dynamic landscape?

Alexandre: Transitioning from rhetoric to tangible action poses a considerable challenge. The harsh reality remains unchanged. Despite the enthusiasm for impact finance, we still require US$4 trillion annually to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. We hear a lot about energy and ecological transition, but 80% of global energy consumption relies on fossil fuels. The concept of social and solidarity economy is trendy, and I take pride in advocating for it. We spearheaded a resolution at the United Nations, through Pact for Impact, to recognize and promote the social economy. However, in reality, over 170 countries worldwide lack dedicated frameworks or financing tools for social entrepreneurs.

While there is consensus and increased awareness about these issues, transitioning from being a leader who talks the talk to one who walks the walk is challenging in practice. People admire our social entrepreneur enterprises, but they often fall short in taking concrete actions to facilitate the scaling up of social entrepreneurship initiatives in the real world.

DevelopmentAid: And how do you support social enterprises to realize their full potential, enabling them to explore and deliver high-impact solutions?

Alexandre: I believe we face two primary challenges. Firstly, it’s essential to support the localization of aid because while global issues exist, they demand local solutions. Therefore, our support programs must be tailored to suit the specific needs of each region. Our incubation program in Cape Town differs from that in the Balkans or Tunisia, highlighting the importance of localization.

Secondly, our aim is to empower social entrepreneurs to excel as entrepreneurs in their own right and amplify their impact. It’s crucial to understand that serving the common good doesn’t necessarily make things easier; in fact, it often presents even greater challenges. We operate incubators in over 18 countries known as Pulse Incubators. Through these, we offer support to nearly 1000 social entrepreneurs who aren’t affiliated with our group but who benefit from our assistance.

Photo Credit: Groupe SOS

DevelopmentAid: You mentioned the importance of revealing more insight about the localization aspect. Could you expand on this?

Alexandre: Since 2016, there’s been a notable global agreement aiming for 25% of funding to be channelled towards local players, especially in humanitarian and development aid (called the “Grand Bargain”). However, the stark reality is that only 1.8% of funds are currently directed locally, a figure that is decreasing annually, which is a shame.

Donors predominantly allocate resources to international organizations in 98% of cases, rather than local solutions. To me, it’s not solely a matter of ethics or morality; it’s also about efficiency.

Investing in local players today ensures they are empowered and autonomous, enabling them to devise more solutions and be prepared to act when the next crisis arises. This approach is much more efficient than simply assuming crises will end and international NGOs will depart. We’ve diligently worked to transform all our NGOs into capacity-building organizations. We focus less on direct actions and more on empowering local players.

In the sports domain, our NGO PLAY collaborates with the French Development Agency to empower 17 African Sport Academies. Our objective isn’t to establish and operate academies ourselves. We strive to ensure that local sports academies are well-managed, expanded, and equipped with inclusive programs to address development issues through sports. Related to the healthcare sector, we aren’t inclined to dispatch individual doctors to perform surgery and then return to their hometowns in Normandy. Rather, our aim with Santé Sud is to train local doctors and communities where access to quality healthcare becomes intrinsic to the local system and is independent of external assistance.

DevelopmentAid: What is the long-term vision for Groupe SOS, and how does it envision the evolution of social entrepreneurship in the coming years?

Alexandre: I believe the most profound impact we can achieve extends beyond Groupe SOS. It lies in what unfolds outside our organization. My dream is a world where thousands of groups similar to ours emerge in every country, scaling up because talented entrepreneurs exist everywhere. I see our organization as setting a precedent. It took us 40 years but now, with 22,000 employees, a turnover of €1.5 billion, and operations in 50 countries, we stand as one of the few global social unicorns. Our goal is to facilitate their accelerated growth.

DevelopmentAid: Alexandre, you mentioned that the field of social entrepreneurship is flourishing. What would you say to individuals considering opening or developing a social enterprise?

Alexandre: The answer is pretty simple: it makes you happy. I think that’s a good enough reason to be a social entrepreneur. To add a bit more depth, it might seem contradictory, but being helpful to others can also bring a selfish sense of personal fulfilment. So, I think that’s a pretty solid rationale, don’t you? It doesn’t mean it’s easy; it’s actually quite hard. One aspect is that being helpful to others in need is rewarding while the other factor is being aligned, which brings happiness. My key learning is that I’m happiest when I’m most aligned with my values and how I choose to spend my time on this little planet by being a social entrepreneur.

I have zero judgement of people who have different alignments. If you want to prioritize making as much money as possible, or if you have a passion that doesn’t maximize social impact, that’s perfectly fine. Being happy is what matters most, and I’m not here to judge anyone.

DevelopmentAid: As our interview comes to a close, is there any final message or insight you’d like to share with our audience?

Alexandre: I think this could be tied to the question about the vision of Groupe SOS and the idea of nurturing thousands of other organizations. It’s not merely about the struggle to change the economy. It’s about the systemic change. What is the ideal we have for the planet? What is the ideal we have for the economy? What is the ideal we have for our careers? When I reflected on this interview, I couldn’t help but think about my daughter. Becoming a father for the first time last year, I often ponder the vast opportunities she’ll have ahead. However, I hope that when she makes decisions, our cultural definitions of a good career or enterprise will have evolved. I hope our impact indicators will prioritize humanity over finances. It’s a personal reflection on the intimate ideals we cultivate as humanity.