Oksigen Lab: Walking the Talk of Financial Sustainability

My second day in Belgium was grey and started with the futile attempt of finding a cafe with free wifi. Defeated, I sipped my coffee and watched the solar eclipse for which hundreds of tourists had assembled in the beautiful old-town square ‘Grand Place’. Spectacular, and adding to the surreal sensation of sitting in Brussels in the middle of the week – a city that I don’t think stands out among all the European capitals and still felt very foreign to me.

Walking to my meeting at i-propeller I was once more struck by the sight of a homeless man on the stairs leading up to the Royal Gardens. Bizarre encounter. Again, probably something you will find in any European capital, but in Brussels – the center of European politics – this sight was more startling.

I walked through the Royal Gardens with little energy, but as soon as I entered the i-propeller offices hosting both of my interview partners that day, Oksigen Lab and SI2-Fund, my energy returned with the hustle of different people running their meetings and talking in every corner.

The Oksigen Ecosystem

Today’s Oksigen ecosystem started with i-propeller in 2006 by four entrepreneurs with backgrounds in academia/research, financial services, social entrepreneurship and the corporate sector. The original idea:

Supporting social innovation in Belgium through research and consulting. Click To Tweet

“Supporting social entrepreneurs was always part of i-propeller’s work, even if we had no structured program to do so. Somehow, we always made it fit in.” says Vincent. “As i-propeller was growing strongly very quickly, we decided in 2012 to branch out the work in the field of social entrepreneurship to define clearly what i-propeller’s services were.” Oksigen Lab was born.

Today, Oksigen Lab works with approximately 40 early-stage social entrepreneurs per year. After an intake interview, the entrepreneur and coach develop a coaching trajectory including specific coaching topics and the days needed to achieve the collaboratively-defined goal. During ten to fifteen days over several months the coach provides input and expertise towards specific challenges the social entrepreneur faces. Content is determined case by case; the entrepreneur pays the full price for the coaching sessions if he/she achieves his/her pre-defined goal, and a reduced fee if not.

Oksigen Lab offers tailored support for #SocEnt on a consulting basis. Click To Tweet

The challenge in this model? Entrepreneurs are incentivised to not be successful in order to avoid the higher fee tranche. At the same time, the support provided to participating social entrepreneurs is highly specialized and tailored to their needs. My conversation with Vincent confirmed my growing suspicion that there is is potential for a business model when working with social entrepreneurs. Vincent argues “We need to walk the talk. We teach our entrepreneurs the importance of business models and financial sustainability. How credible are we if we do not lead by example?”. On top of that, imagine what you could do if you actually had a budget for remunerating experts and mentors instead of asking for their work pro-bono!

The business case - how credible are we if we don't lead by example? Click To Tweet

Oksigen Lab is involved in EU project BENISI which seeks to build a network of incubators for social innovation. First mentioned by Wieke van der Zouwen at Impact Hub Amsterdam, I should learn more about this project in the coming weeks.

Oksigen Lab's support approach

Oksigen Lab’s support approach

I was skeptical at first, and I remain skeptical when it comes to how high the entrepreneurs’ fees can and should be, but I am more and more convinced that having skin in the game financially is beneficial for both support organizations and social entrepreneurs. I agree with Oksigen’s policy of leading by example, not only because it helps finance the operations of a support organization, but it starts setting the tone across the industry that not all support services can or should be free. In the end of the day, that makes social business distinct from charity. I don’t want to argue that every support program should start charging for their services, but I believe that too many provide a lot of great value for free, and I am concerned about the sustainability of these programs.

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