7 -min. read

Social enterprises are emerging as a potent force for empowering consumers, enlivening communities and even changing the world. #CookForSyria founder Serena Guen reflects on her realisation that no business or individual is too small to make an impact – and what this means for the travel industry

It all started on Instagram. I watched as people took to social media to pronounce their solidarity with Paris and then Istanbul as terror attacks shook these metropolises, remembering the many (often non-western) places which do not receive such levels of attention. Like a lot of people, I was overcome by a sort of shocked paralysis and at a loss as to how I could help.

But last summer, a field trip with Unicef kicked me into action as I realised that no contribution is too small. Flicking through my Instagram feed and seeing hundreds of images of food, it occurred to me that eating is something that unites people; it knows no borders and is something we share globally.

I got in touch with Clerkenwell Boy, one of the UK’s leading food Instagrammers, to ask if he would co-host a dinner in aid of Unicef NEXT Generation’s Syria appeal. We called on industry friends including Yotam Ottolenghi, Angela Hartnett, Nuno Mendes, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver to help, and within a week we had dozens more chefs contacting us to ask how they could get involved. One Clerkenwell Boy Instagram post later and we received a barrage of emails from the general public asking how they could join in too. Clearly, we had struck a chord by showing ‘normal’ people how they could make a difference by finding something that resonated with them and was easy to orchestrate.

Over the next couple of months, #CookForSyria was born. Following the hugely successful launch dinner, hundreds of restaurants across London put Syrian-inspired dishes on their menus, with proceeds going towards the appeal, while many people hosted supper clubs at home using recipes from our microsite, sharing their experiences using the hashtag #CookForSyria. We decided to continue the legacy by launching a cookbook of Syrian recipes from top chefs in time for Christmas; it reached #21 on Amazon’s bestseller list within just two weeks of its release.

To date, #CookForSyria has launched in London, Sydney and Melbourne, and by the end of 2017 it will be in Hamburg, Munich, Berlin, Paris, New York, LA, San Francisco, and hopefully further. So far, we have raised over half a million pounds for Unicef’s Syria Relief appeal, helping children to build a future and ensure that no generation is lost. Equally importantly, we have shared a little bit of Syrian culture, helping to humanise a crisis that was in danger of losing the public’s compassion, while showing a different side to a country that has come to be portrayed solely through the media lens of shattered buildings, destruction and despair.

I often get asked how #CookForSyria “went viral”. There are a few components that contributed to its success – not least that Syrian cuisine, which is at the heart of the country’s very warm culture, is delicious! But I think it’s largely attributable to the fact that we found a common global theme (food) that exists outside the political sphere, and created a simple model that everyone could participate in and could easily be replicated in other cities. Add the wildfire power of social media and Syria’s omnipresence in the news to the mix, and we had all the ingredients to create something big.

That being said, the challenges of coordinating a successful campaign should not be underestimated; we are so grateful for the tireless work of all our volunteers, and there was definitely a stroke of luck involved. If I’m being honest, I thought I would have to wait until SUITCASE had become a big corporation before we could do something that would actually have any impact. I think this is a common (mis)conception among both individuals and businesses; it’s expensive to donate proceeds to certain causes and you cannot always be sure about where that money is going. But what #CookForSyria shows is that it doesn’t have to be about financial expenditure; it is possible to reallocate resources (e.g. the majority of work was done by the SUITCASE team, on work time) and have just as big an effect. When it comes to social responsibility there is no ‘one size fits all’, but many different ways to help.

Social media has made it increasingly difficult to ignore the various crises we face in the 21st century, be they humanitarian or environmental, and is challenging our inertia-inducing feelings of helplessness. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand. As an industry that accounts for 10% of the world’s GDP, it makes sense that the travel sector is trailblazing the way for businesses to contribute to global change (and with 88% of Americans agreeing that companies have the power to influence social change in a recent SONAR survey, this amounts to powerful branding as well as good business). It began with ecotourism and sustainability, but we are now seeing an increasing trend for companies to integrate social enterprises (often with added political edge) into their core operational structure, rather than tacking it on as an afterthought – and where companies lead, consumers follow.

Airbnb is a good example of a leading corporation that is bringing social responsibility to the fore with initiatives such as its “Disasters Response Page”, which helps displaced families to find accommodation following human/natural disasters. It also provided relief for those caught up in Trump’s travel ban. By waiving service fees and allowing hosts to list properties for free, much like #CookForSyria, Airbnb offers a direct way for people to help who may not have otherwise known how – and at little or no financial cost. They are currently covering 47 global emergencies and have over 3000 active listings, while campaigns such as #OneLessStranger saw them give away $1million to users to spend on small acts of kindness, such as buying seeds to plant in community gardens or buying food for those in need.

More recently, its “social impact experiences” connect guests and hosts around the world with causes they care about: that may be booking yourself into a DJ session in LA, with proceeds going to help families impacted by incarceration; or learning traditional cooking methods in Nairobi, with funds going to a women’s empowerment charity. In a similar vein, Enso Expeditions encourages people to change the way they travel by offering experiences hosted by local individuals and tour operators that they know will directly contribute to a good cause. They place particular emphasis on children and education: in other words, the future. It’s clever marketing that simultaneously helps to bridge the gap between capital and community: brand activism in both senses.

This approach is trickling down to smaller businesses, too. Meet Me There Eco Lodge in Ghana is a not-for-profit hotel supporting an NGO called Dream Big Ghana, which provides sanitation and healthcare in the surrounding villages. Closer to home, the Good Hotel is an initiative that recently relocated from Amsterdam to London, taking people out of long-term employment by training them up and employing them, before reinvesting all profit back into their continued education and welfare. Similarly, Fogo Island Inn in Canada has been widely written about as a “100% social business” supporting the continued cultural and economic prosperity of a community that once faced extinction following the collapse of the traditional fishing industry, by teaching islanders how to adapt their skills to cope with modernisation as well as creating more jobs. Their operational philosophy as a charitable foundation is spot on.

On a different note, Green Rooms is a hotel that has just opened in my London hometown and is billed as “the UK’s first arts hotel, a social enterprise that offers affordable accommodation in a beautiful setting that inspires creativity” – pertinent given the governmental cuts to arts funding and demonstrating yet another form of social welfare within the travel industry. Many other businesses are contributing in smaller but equally significant ways, with gestures such as US group 1 Hotels’ donating minibar profits to charities like Action Against Hunger just one example of socially minded enterprise. It is this diversity within social-savvy business initiatives, and the various levels of commitment available, which will hopefully lead to brand activism and socially orientated policies being written into the blueprint of companies large and small.

What matters more than ever today is to remember that no action is too small; having an impact doesn’t have to involve either raising or spending millions. And it is the responsibility of businesses to lead by example, empowering people by giving them not only the opportunity, but also the mindset to help, in the hope that they will carry the torch into their own lives, and therefore the future.

This article originally appeared in the 2017 print issue of THE SHIFT.

Named the “Mark Zuckerberg of publishing” by Bloomberg and the BBC, Serena Guen founded the award-winning SUITCASE Magazine, recently launching its media agency branch. Her accolades include being named as Forbes 30 under 30 in 2017, 25 under 25 most influential Londoners by the Evening Standard, winning a Woman of the Future Award for media and being shortlisted for the UK’s Young Travel Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2016.

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