Sara Horowitz: My Top 5 Tips For Social Entrepreneurs

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Sara Horowitz is the Founder and Executive Director of Freelancers Union and CEO of the social-purpose Freelancers Insurance Company. The Freelancers Union is the fastest growing union in the US, with 200,000 members spanning all 50 states.

 In 2011 Sara was named one of the Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs by Forbes and a Top 25 Most Promising Social Entrepreneur by Businessweek. She was one of Crain’s New York’s “25 People to Watch” in 2010, one of 100 Global Leaders for Tomorrow at the 2002 World Economic Forum.

 A MacArthur Foundation “Genius” fellow, Sara has long been a leading voice for the emerging economy, early on recognizing the vital role independent workers would play in our networked, interconnected world. Today, 42 million Americans are “independent workers” – about one-third of the entire workforce.

With a membership of more than 170,000 nationwide, Freelancers Union is building a new form of unionism through creative, cooperative, market-based solutions to pressing social problems.

In 1995, Sara used her experience as a union organizer and labor lawyer to found the nonprofit Working Today, which brings freelancers together to create power in markets and power in politics. That led directly to the creation of the nonprofit Freelancers Union in 2003, which promotes the needs of the independent workforce through advocacy, education, and services.

After founding the Freelaancers Union, Sara recognized that one of the biggest challenges facing independent workers is the lack of access to affordable health insurance. Rather than wait on the government or private sector to solve this problem, Sara launched Freelancers Insurance Company (FIC) in 2008, a social-purpose business wholly owned by Freelancers Union, whose mission is to provide independent workers with high-quality, affordable, and portable health insurance. FIC has been profitable since its second year and now insures close to 25,000 New Yorkers with revenues approaching $100 million.

We spoke to Sara about entrepreneurs’ responsibility for tackling social issues; about the current trendiness of social enterprise; and her top five tips for would-be social entrepreneurs.

TNW: What is the difference for you between a non-profit and a social-purpose business?

SH:

In a lot of ways, the differences are less important than their similarities. Both non-profits and social-purpose businesses can drive big change.

Freelancers Union, with our 200,000 members, is a non-profit providing services and advocacy to our members. It is also the sole shareholder of Freelancers Insurance Company, our social purpose business that provides insurance to 25,000 New Yorkers.

Both sides of the equation help drive our vision of helping freelancers achieve meaningful independence. And both sides help ensure we are sustainable and will be able to lead a growing movement for generations to come.

TNW: As innovators, do you believe that entrepreneurs have a heightened social responsibility? Which social issues would you like to see entrepreneurs tackle in the next five or ten years?

SH:

I think everyone has a heightened responsibility to address the issues affecting their network.

That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from freelancers -- that we’re all choosing how we contribute every day. A veteran freelancer who helps a new freelancer find her first gig is creating a new economy built on mutual support. A group of graphic designers who join together to start a cooperative to lower their individual overhead costs are showing how new kinds of institutions can drive the new economy.  It’s actually these new kinds of partnerships and cooperative efforts that may mark the biggest change in the coming decade.

TNW: ‘Social Enterprise’ is such a buzzword at the moment. Is there anything about the huge rise in, and trendiness of, social enterprises which concerns you?

SH:

I don’t want to see social enterprises become just another outlet for venture capitalists to find big profit.

What I really want to see develop is an entirely new economic model, one that weaves together companies, entrepreneurs, workers, and other organizations favoring long-term sustainability over short-term profit.

TNW: Which five key tips would you give to those contemplating launching a social enterprise?

I’d give social entrepreneurs the same advice I give new freelancers:

  1. Know why you’re starting your social enterprise

  2. Figure out your key strengths

  3. Figure out your customer’s needs

  4. Gather your brain trust

  5. Make your plan for going public

And remember to keep an eye on your North Star – the ultimate reason you started your venture. Don’t get taken off course.

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