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“Anything is possible” – Why founding a social startup is rewarding on many levels

Zarah Bruhn, Founder and CEO of socialbee, Image: Urban Zintel

Social businesses are the enterprises of the future. As our societies become more diverse but do not offer equal opportunities for everyone, integration is an issue that no one in the business world can turn a blind eye to anymore. “Creating new chances every day”, is the vision of socialbee. Partnering with TUM School of Management, the social business is working towards reaching the UN sustainable development goals, fighting to reduce inequalities and furthering quality education, decent work and economic growth by integrating socially disadvantaged people, which is also covered in the PRME report. We talked to socialbee CEO and TUM School of Management alumna Zarah Bruhn about the challenges of founding a non-profit social startup and why it’s actually more than worth it.

Developing innovative perspectives: From individual integration to holistic programs

A socialbee employee talking to an applicant who found his way into the job market.

socialbee is known as Germany’s first integration service provider, sustainably educating and integrating refugees into the labour market. Starting in 2016 with placing individual refugees on listed jobs, the startup was able to integrate 10,000 people into the German job market ever since. But then the pandemic has fundamentally changed the situation. Many companies paused on employing people, let alone refugees, so nearly 65% of them dropped out of the program and the startup struggled. Recognizing its business model had reached its limits, socialbee started to create new ones. It switched their integration work to a digital process and is now not only operating nationwide, but is already launching projects in the DACH region (Germany, Austria, Switzerland), planning to expand  over Europe. Collaborating with companies such as SAP, socialbee initiates holistic digital programs, which include refugee recruitment, a three-month training process followed by employment and ongoing supervision for up to nine months. “Besides the programs, we also train companies to employ refugees, because integration is a two-way process”, adds Bruhn. A concept that is crowned with success: Recently, Bruhn won the Audi Generation Award, the first winner in the category of startup. A prize, which honors young and successful personalities, who have proven that there is a steep career ahead of them. Furthermore, socialbee was selected one of 34 organizations worldwide in the Google Impact Challenge for female empowerment – a philanthropy competition challenging all nonprofit organizations around the globe to submit their boldest and most innovative ideas to create a more equitable economic reality for women and girls.

Every beginning is hard

However, especially in the first year, Bruhn and her team had to face some challenges to establish their business. Not being accepted to the EXIST founder’s scholarship, which usually supports startups in the first year, the team had to pre-finance its whole formation process itself. “I went to my parents and borrowed 20,000 euros from them, saying I would like to set up a company in the field of refugees, integration and temporary work, which I actually had no idea about. I paused my studies and quit my job with no perspective on how we were going to earn money in the long term, but I had people who believed in me”, Bruhn recounts. Founding her business during her studies of the Masters in Management and Technology at TUM School of Management, Bruhn also received a lot of support: “The university paved the way for me to start a business during my studies and to finish my studies even though I was a founder.” Most of all, she values the TUM ecosystem and its founding spirit that is visible throughout “The most important thing when founding is having role models and a supportive ecosystem surrounding oneself. This is what TUM is all about and it’s why TUM is successfully known as a founders’ university.”

Why should students think about founding a social startup?

Zarah Bruhn at the Audi Next Generation Awards ceremony.

Founding a non-profit social business might not always be the first option for students who want to pursue a great career. Earning the maximum amount of money and making a quick exit is not an option when owning a non-profit enterprise, explains Bruhn. However, the business model offers many other benefits: “I want to encourage everyone to start a social business. We just get so much support from all sides because we have a social mission and a good purpose”, says the socialbee founder. “Suddenly, anything is possible.” Bruhn also recognizes a trend of working in social enterprises, instead of the classic industries. “For many students in the new generation, life is not all about building yourself a stable home and a family, it is also about self-realization and purpose”, knows Bruhn. She wants socialbee to be a role model for other social businesses. “At socialbee, we want to be a prototype of a social enterprise, pay great salaries, do state-of-the-art new work from anywhere in the world, with the best people. We want to scale up in terms of impact, with successful business models, just like enterprises in other industries”, Bruhn says. “We have the same ambitions, but social enterprises are always put in a bit of a corner. So, we need more lighthouse examples of attractive social entrepreneurs to prove to students who want to take the safe route that this is a balance which works really well.”

How to become a social business leader?

One thing Bruhn has learned through her founding experience is that passion is what keeps you going. “Follow your passion! With passion comes the idea and the idea keeps you on track”, she says. Even if founders do not have the crucial business idea in the first place, but a passionate wish to make a difference, it will come about. When you already have a great idea, don’t hesitate – “Just do it! You will not become successful if you overthink it”, recommends Bruhn. A principle that encourages her to approach bigger and bolder ideas and don’t let her feel intimidated by CEOs or other founders since the beginning: “They still put their pants on one leg at a time.” If they were able to make it, so are you.

“We need more women who dare!”

To believe in oneself is an advice Bruhn wants to pass on to other female founders in particular. Self-confidence and a bold performance in pitches is something that can be learned, Bruhn says from her experience. Therefore, she is training female founders to become more confident and gain fundraising skills. “We need more role models, more women who dare. The opportunities and doors are currently open for female founders. Investors are more interested in investing in women. The structures on a large scale have not yet changed, but the opportunities for each individual are better than ever”, emphasizes Bruhn. Having successfully implemented her startup, she still has ongoing ideas and aims to make a difference.

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