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Profit vs Gangsters

Marlon Parker started a small volunteer project in 2008. Five years later, the social enterprise has a $1 million turnover, has helped develop 22 businesses and has been replicated in 20 countries.

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When Marlon Parker, 36, founded Reconstructed Living Lab (RLabs) in the poverty-stricken township of Athlone near Cape Town, where unemployment, gangsterism and drug abuse are rife, his main aim was to give people hope. He quickly realized the best way to do this was to create sustainable ways of income generation.

In 2008, Parker launched a volunteer-driven IT and social media training program for the many unskilled people in his community. The RLabs Academy, as he called it, has trained more than 14,000 people in the past five years. It offers 15 courses, from technology to entrepreneurship, social innovation and project management.

As the program grew, Parker launched Living Labs, a sideline project where newly trained people create mobile and internet solutions for social change. Products include mobile chat platforms, crowd-sourcing mobile applications for consumer pricing data, mobile publishing and web data analytics applications.

“I realized that the human capital we are creating is a major resource. We could compete with other service providers. We started selling our products to companies, or hire out consultants to firms that want to leverage their social and digital media strategies,” says Parker.

Parker realized that RLabs, which employs 70 full-time staff, needed to think entrepreneurially to sustain itself in the long-term. In 2010, he started an entity to sell Living Labs’ community-focused technologies to the private sector.

“We get ideas to a stage where they can become businesses in their own right,” he says.

One of those successful ideas is Jammix, a counseling service application that allows people to chat to a counselor using a text messaging system on their cellphones. More than three million people in poor communities have been using the service.

“When we saw how popular and useful the application was, we commercialized the technology and sold part of it to external investors for a substantial amount of money,” says Parker.

Another RLabs invention is Uusi, an application that allows artisanal, semi- and unskilled workers to browse job ads on their cellphones. The free service, financed by advertising, has been used by more than 300,000 people, with one out of five finding work.

“The best thing about the application is that it was developed by a man who was unemployed for almost 20 years. He was trained by RLabs and now makes money helping others find jobs,” explains Parker.

When Parker realized how many ideas developed in the Living Labs had the potential to become businesses, he launched an incubation program. Every year, RLabs selects seven or eight product ideas and, with a financial injection of $20,000 each, grooms them into fully-fledged ventures within nine months.

In just over two years, RLabs incubated 22 businesses. It owns a small equity stake in each of them, using the profits to fund new ventures.

“Of those 22 businesses, we already sold three and managed to make 10 times our investment back,” Parker says with pride.

Today, Parker replicates the RLabs model by incubating other social enterprises through impact investing and social franchising around the world.

“We have expanded to 20 countries, mainly in Africa, but also in Europe, Southeast Asia, Canada and Brazil. For us, it’s amazing to see something that started in the Cape Flats to be used in the United Kingdom,” he says.

In South Africa, RLabs created more than 1,000 full-time jobs through its offshoots. By the end of the current financial year, the social enterprise expects to make $1 million.

Parker keeps pursuing new opportunities. His goal for the next two years is to establish RLabs on seven continents.

“The only problem is who will be going to go to Antarctica,” he jokes.

“If you create something that has a big impact, it makes a big echo. I want to create something that echoes into eternity.”

Parker has a skill for creating something out of nothing, because he was once an unskilled worker from South Africa’s poverty-stricken Cape Flats.

“I grew up in the typical scenario: single parent, lots of siblings, all living in my grandmother’s house, in an area where there were gangs, lots of drugs and hardly a future,” he says.

Although he was the first in his family to complete high school, there was no money to attend university. As the eldest of five, Parker was expected to contribute to the family income and took a job pushing trolleys at Cape Town’s international airport. Despite his slim prospects, Parker kept dreaming. He remembers yearning to join the middle class.

“My biggest ambition in life was to get a job where I can wear a shirt and a tie.”

For two years, he saved every penny until he had put aside $50—just enough to pay a university administrative fee.

Parker quit his airport job to study computer programming at the Cape Town Peninsula University of Technology. Because he was broke, he walked the 20-odd kilometers to and from campus every day.

What saved him from falling into deep debt was his knack for statistics—a subject most students struggled with. He became a statistics tutor before graduating, at the age of 21, financing his studies along the way.

Parker worked as a business intelligence consultant for an IT company for a while, and later as a full-time lecturer. But his entrepreneurial spirit propelled him to do something bigger.

“I wanted to use technology to bring about social change. Although the term social entrepreneur wasn’t even coined yet,” he says.

With RLabs, he has done good and made a profit.

Entrepreneurs

Covid-19: ‘Help Healthcare Systems In The Early Days Of Disease’

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A preliminary screening test app from the Philippines that can help individuals and healthcare systems diagnose Covid-19 symptoms sooner – and in a safer way.

Lars Jeppesen, the CEO and Co-Founder of Enadoc, a tech company based in Manila in the Philippines, and Wasantha Weerakoone, its CTO and Co-Founder, have always been passionate about healthcare. Although running Enadoc, which they co-founded in 2017 with technology solutions integrator Tech One Global, in the Covid-19 pandemic, Jeppesen says they saw an opportunity to not only make a difference, but also “expand the bandwidth and depth” of their services. Enadoc has now developed a screening test app that individuals can use at home, while healthcare institutions can use it on people who have developed symptoms of Covid-19. The Denmark-born entrepreneur shares more:

How did the Covid-19 screening test application come about?

In emerging economies and markets, even big countries like the US and many European countries, the number of doctors per person is limited… Now, we have a virus that has been spreading since November and if the doctor would have been some kind of AI in the background, maybe this data could have been available earlier saying ‘ok, we have some abnormal amount of people who are having the same symptoms, what is happening here?’ But because each doctor in each country, district and village deals with their own situation differently, all of us have our basic education but how do we keep ourselves up-to-date all the time with the latest? So it was always in my head ‘what can we do in this situation to bring more healthcare to more people, and help the healthcare systems in the early days of the disease to screen people or to help diagnose better?’

I think the diagnosis could be done more and more by AI sitting behind some application. And maybe with some telemedicine in between… Because of that, doctors can deal with more patients in a day and don’t need to deal with patients that could be contagious. The first paralyzing situation in the healthcare system was so many doctors and nurses got sick in the early days because they didn’t know what they were dealing with. So, if we had some kind of way of saying ‘ok, there’s something happening here, this patient needs to arrive in the hospital and be put in isolation before, or we need to have certain equipment to make sure we deal with this patient in a different way’, that made us think. Then you start to see the emergence of people coming up with some screening tools and we said ‘ok, maybe we could take all the information available that we could find in the World Health Organization, Department of Health, and all these different sources and put together some kind of framework to help in screening’. We did that and now the application is in data.

How are African countries using the app?

Right now, we have seen around six or seven countries using the app in Africa including Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda. We don’t know the exact location of the user, we just know the app has been used there. We don’t know the individual user, we don’t have an IP address or any phone ID. The platform we are using for the app is Microsoft services.

One of our intentions is to bring this product together with the healthcare app from Microsoft… We bring on the global healthcare AI into the backend of the app and create a kind of an app chat bot where you can say what your symptoms are, not only for Covid-19, but for any kind of disease.

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31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help

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The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis. 

“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”

Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses. 

“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”

Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand. 

The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.

“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”

An example of Facebook’s new Shops feature, which creates digital “storefronts” for businesses.
 
FACEBOOK

Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have  increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online. 

“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.

Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist. 

“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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Birds Of A Feather: The Stepchickens Cult On TikTok Is The Next Evolution Of The Influencer Business

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Like any self-respecting cult, the Stepchickens follow a strict code of conduct as dictated by their absolute leader, Mother Hen, a comedian named Melissa who posts on TikTok as @chunkysdead. Mother Hen has widely preached a message of peace, telling her 1.7 million TikTok followers: “We do not rule by being cruel, we shine by being kind.” Further, she has asked all Stepchickens to make themselves easily identifiable and make her photo their TikTok profile picture.

Mother Hen has created TikTok’s first “cult.” (Her word.) Boiled down, she is a social media influencer, and the Stepchickens are her fans, just as more famous TikTok influencers—Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and the like—all have their fanbases. But Mother Hen’s presence and style is quite singular, particularly in the way she communicates with her followers, what she asks them to do and how the Stepchickens respond to her. After all, not every member of the Charli hive use her image as their profile pictures.

“These influencers are looking for a way to build community and figure out how to monetize their community. That’s the No. 1 most important thing for a creator or an influencer,” says Tiffany Zhong, cofounder of ZebraIQ, a community and trends platform. “It’s become a positive for Gen Z, where you’re proud to be part of this cult—part of this community. They are dying to be part of a community. So it’s easy to get sucked in.”

Mother Hen, who didn’t return a request to comment for this story, already had a popular comedy vlog-style TikTok account on May 6 when she asked her followers to send suggestions for what they could name their cult. From the ideas offered up, she chose Stepchickens, and in the 19 days since, her following has more than doubled. (It was around 700,000 back at the beginning of this month.) She has posted videos about taking ediblesher celebrity lookalikes and her relationship status (“all this cult power, still no boyfriend”). And perhaps in violation of her first-do-no-harm credo, Mother Hen has implored her followers to embark on “battles” and “raids,” where Stepchickens comment bomb other influencers’ videos, posting messages en masse. She has become the mother of millions: TikTok videos with #stepchickens have generated 102 million views on the app, and her own videos have received 54.6 million likes.

Mother Hen is now concentrating on feathering her nest. She has launched a large range of merch: smartphone cases ($24), hoodies ($44), t-shirts ($28) and beanies ($28). Corporate sponsorships seem within reach, too. TikTok accounts for the Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays and one for the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny, all changed their profile picture to the image distributed by Mother Hen. The Rays sent her a box of swag, addressing the package to “Mother Hen,” of course. She dressed up in the gear (two hats, a fanny pack, a tank top) and recorded herself wearing it in a TikTok, a common move by influencers to express gratitude and signal that they’re open to business sponsorship opportunities. Mother Hen has launched a YouTube channel, too, where she’ll earn ad revenue based on the views that her 43,000 subscribers generate by watching her content.

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Then there is the Stepchickens app available on Apple devices. This digital roost is a thriving message feed—it resembles a Slack channel or a Discord server—where Stepchickens congregate, chat and coordinate their raids. They can also use it to create videos, ones “to glorify mother hen,” the app’s instructions read.

The app launched last Monday and has already attracted more than 100,000 users, a benchmark that most apps do not ever see and the best reach within months of starting. Since its debut, it has ranked as high as the ninth most popular social media app in the world on the download charts and in the Top 75 most downloaded across all types of apps. The Stepchickens have traded 135,000 messages, and the app’s most devoted users are spending as long as 10 hours a day on it, says Sam Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Blink Labs who built the Stepchickens app.

“There’s this emergence of a more active—a more dedicated—fan base and following. A lot of the influencers on TikTok are kind of dancing around, doing some very broadcast-y type content. Their followers might not mobilize nearly as much as” the Stepchickens, says Mueller. Mother Hen’s flock, by contrast, “feel like they’re part of something, feel like they’re connected. They can have fun and be together for something bigger than what they’re doing right now, which is kind of being at home bored and lonely. There’s untapped value here.”

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