Disclaimer: The content of the interview below solely reflects the views of the interviewees and must not be taken to reflect the views of the British Council, the COOPower project partners or of the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.
‘It’s the single, uniform, strong vision from the beginning, which you take with you, that’s what keeps you going. Money just helps you get there.’
Steven Stavrou, co-founder, CyprusInno
CyprusInno is a non-profit social venture and think tank founded in Nicosia, Cyprus in late 2016 run by a young Greek-Cypriot and a Turkish-Cypriot team. CyprusInno provides tools and resources for entrepreneurs across both communities in Cyprus to co-operate, grow, succeed, and build peace and trust.
Büke Dorukan, one of the journalists based in Cyprus working as part of the COOPower project, spoke to CyprusInno co-founders Burak Doluay and Steven Stavrou about their work.
Why should I be interested in social enterprises as a career choice?
Steven: ‘This is the generation to do it! This generation is mission-driven. It’s important to have a job that makes you feel that you’re contributing to something. If you’ve got an idea, just start it! Don’t wait for funding and/or validation, or your parents to say it’s OK! Just go and start something, it could start as small as an Instagram page, but start somewhere, anywhere.
‘Think about a social enterprise from a for-profit angle. Consider how it could start to generate revenue, how it could be self-sustainable, but also make an impact at the same time. Most importantly, have a common vision and keep it close to you so that you don’t get distracted by things along the way.’
Burak: ‘Most people will probably ask, “Are you crazy? Are you stupid?” Don’t be influenced by this. A really important thing you can do is find a friend, or a family member, or meet someone who thinks like you. Maybe there’s someone who is also working on the same topic or issue as you. Get them to support you with the emotional challenge. As much as it is a physical challenge, all the planning and running a business, you’re also trying to do good while developing a business at the same time, which isn’t easy. If you lack experience, that’s twice the challenge. You need to build your own support mechanism, both mentally and physically, to keep you going.’
What are the sorts of skills that you need to set up a social business?
Steven: ‘You need to be ready to face some level of risk, as with any new venture. Communication skills are also really important because you need to be able to present, document your ideas, pitch, bring partners on-board, and encourage customers/users/beneficiaries to buy into what you’re offering. You may propose ideas, but what’s essential is that you connect those to the end goal of where you want to be. You need to develop strategic thinking to see where you want to go, and to build the roadmap to get there. Most importantly, you need to tell a good story.’
How did CyprusInno begin?
Steven: ‘Burak and I originally each had our own independent business ventures when we first met, but we were operating in the same entrepreneurial space and we both had very similar ideas. We both had a strong desire to foster opportunities for entrepreneurs across Cyprus following the financial crisis [the economic and financial crisis of 2012–13], but with a twist. We wanted to do this collaboratively on both sides [of the island of Cyprus], to build sustainable businesses and, as a result, sustainable peace. We set up CyprusInno as a digital platform from the beginning, and then a few months after that, we had our first in-person Intercommunal Business Mixer. That’s where Burak and I met in person for the first time after collaborating digitally for a while!’
Burak: ‘We started as a digital platform, mapping the start-up ecosystem jointly on both sides of the island to make it visible for every entrepreneur or anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur so they can see what’s happening and get in touch with one another to collaborate. This then became a series of physical networking events. Then, we took a look at what was missing in this ecosystem. From this, we set up a knowledge sharing platform, which allows entrepreneurs to take different courses, and started to make our physical events more specific with guest speakers, forums, hackathons, trainings, and innovative youth entrepreneurship programmes using techniques such as gamification. We now have our own physical space in the Buffer Zone [The UN controlled Buffer Zone separates the island of Cyprus, which has been de-facto divided since 1974, with the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities living separately ever since], which is the very first innovation space of its kind in the world located in a demilitarized zone.’
How did you get funding to set up the business?
Burak: ‘We started with no funding at all. Hopefully, this is a situation that won’t happen to too many social enterprises, but we bootstrapped [self-started with no external financial help] with our own money for the first 12–18 months. This is quite an important lesson for the young entrepreneurs that we support. We see a lot of people with great ideas and no funding, but no one is going to fund you if you don’t prove yourself. When we did our first event, it was crazy, we didn’t know whether people would attend. It was only once we could prove that there was interest and that we could create an impact that we were able to get our first round of funding. This is especially important with any social enterprise. You need to start small, create something, show the impact and then the funding will follow.’
What challenges did you face at the beginning?
Burak: ‘We had lots of challenges – digital, physical, everything! The most important thing was our vision, which is the same today as it was on day one. We imagined that what we were doing would have a positive impact, would bring communities together and create a better economy, and this is what we continue to believe. We kept on with that vision.
‘The sort of challenges we faced were things like registering as an intercommunal business: what type of legal business entity were we to be and where do we register? In the north of the island, or in the south? Do we register as an NGO, or as a business? How do we do that as a bicommunal team?’
Steven: ‘We faced many unique challenges that we couldn’t ever expect. At one point, for example, the north and the south of the island had different time zones. So, as you can imagine, when we’d have an event or programme in the buffer zone it would be confusing ... is it at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.? Is that using the northern or the southern time zone? Also, sometimes catering would get stuck at the checkpoint. Instead of meeting and greeting our guests or high-profile speakers, we’d be running to the UN checkpoint to help make sure our food and drinks got through!
‘All along, we were keen to demonstrate that we can create large-scale impact with a very small amount of resources. During the first year, it was all about getting the word out there, getting new subscribers, bringing people together, creating small-scale events that could grow. It’s the single, uniform, strong vision from the beginning, which you take with you, that’s what keeps you going. Money just helps you get there.’
How did CyprusInno develop as a business?
Steven: ‘It started with some really simple things, such as some coffee and a meeting. That was enough for us to build traction and develop the proof of concept to demonstrate what was going on. Once a bit of funding started coming in, we went from 30 people in a café to larger events with 150 people, we had guest speakers, we served beers, we could offer mentorships programmes, build more digital tools, and so on.
‘We built it in stages, starting with the digital tools, then the physical programmes and CyprusInno today, which is now a network of different platforms that work together. There’s digital, which is the main website, various tools, and a mobile app. We have live events, which include mentoring programmes, workshops, networking, trainings, hackathons, etc. Finally, we now have our own physical space, where people can meet, co-work and build businesses together. These components together create the model which fuels our initial vision, which is to bring economic and social development to the island through collaborative entrepreneurship and innovation between both sides, all while building peace.’
Can you provide any examples of successful social enterprises in Cyprus?
Burak: ‘One of the most successful examples is Agia Skepi. It’s a fully sustainable social enterprise. It is a rehabilitation centre, where people go for treatment and then work at the centre to make products. These products are then sold in supermarkets all across the island. In this way, the business makes the money back from the people who are given treatment, and they also employ some of these people at a later stage.’
Is the social economy growing in Cyprus?
Steven: ‘It’s a good question. Where do you draw the line between a social enterprise and a non-profit? A social enterprise should be self-sustaining, it should make its own money and not just rely on grant funding. We’ve seen a lot of interest in the social economy, especially tackling the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but the big question is how do we turn this into actual sustainable businesses?’
Burak: ‘There’s definitely interest from young people in starting social businesses. We’ve seen through our mentorship programmes and workshop a lot of ideas for social enterprises. However, it’s a very thin line between ideas which are viable as a social enterprise and what would work instead as a non-profit or a charity. You need to properly apply the principles of business to make both go together.’