ShonaQuip: Shona McDonald

ShonaQuip: Shona McDonald

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The King III Report on corporate sustainability and the idea of ‘triple bottom line’ responsibility has blurred the line between pure profit and ‘doing good’. Companies are starting to realise that behaving in a socially conscious way can in fact make good business sense too.

But profit-driven businesses that have developed a social conscience still remain different to true social entrepreneurs, who have always existed. These are the people whose businesses are driven by a powerful social conviction and the need to bring about solutions to society’s most pressing problems – the profit, while important, is a secondary necessity that ensures ongoing sustainability so that the businesses can live to help society for another day.

For Shona McDonald, one of South Africa’s most recognised social entrepreneurs, the social entrepreneurship model is the way all business should be run. “Business has such immense potential to meet a need – it’s the basis on which most businesses are built. And if that need is social, and the business can sustain itself by making a profit, then so much the better. I think it’s true for all businesses that if you focus on meeting a real need, the profit will follow,” she says.

The founder of ShonaQuip, an Endeavor South Africa entrepreneur and the recent recipient of both the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Award for Social Entrepreneurship and the 2011 Shoprite Checkers Woman of the Year award in the Socio-Economic Business Developers Category, McDonald started ShonaQuip in response to the pressing need for better wheelchairs and equipment for disabled people.

Responding to a personal need

When she was 19 she had a daughter, Shelley, who was born with cerebral palsy (CP). At the time the only wheelchairs available were for adults and even these were only designed for temporary transportation within hospitals. “Shelley was given a foam-padded folded cardboard insert for her pram with a large piece of webbing to tie her in. I learned that once CP children outgrew their prams the option was to tie them into hospital wheelchairs,” she explains.

Refusing to accept what was available, McDonald poured over books on CP sent from a cousin in the UK. What she noticed were the wheelchairs. “There was an amazing photo of a chair from Sweden so I asked my cousin to buy the motor and wheels from England and bring them over,” she continues. Parts in hand, she approached the Biomedical Engineering Department at UCT where, working from a photograph, she and Mike Price built Shelley a chair.

The motorised chair solved Shelley’s mobility challenges so McDonald moved on to other issues, developing communication cards so that Shelley could tell her parents what she wanted, and modifying toys so she could play. Being involved in parental support groups, it was only a matter of time before people started requesting similar products for their disabled children, and a business was born in McDonald’s home.

An organic evolution

Things could have ticked over quietly in McDonald’s garage for years, and she might always have run a small non-profit organisation. She readily admits that she never planned to run a business. But what’s clear is that she had enough business suss to recognise that sustainability lay in being able to make a profit and control her own finances.

She got increasingly frustrated with relying on fundraising from NGOs: “Funders wanted to do things their way, and this wasn’t always aligned with the needs on the ground. I wanted to take control of the finances myself and do things the way I wanted to do them, and I suppose that’s really when the business itself was born,” she says.

Over 19 years the company grew to take over McDonald’s house before eventually moving to new premises. Based in Cape Town, it has branches in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng, and a community based outreach programme for deep rural areas.

Meeting the needs on the ground

But even as ShonaQuip grew and evolved into a for-profit business, it stayed true to its purpose of providing disabled people with the tools to gain entry into society. A more inclusive society is McDonald’s driving passion. She has been instrumental in shaping public policy on disability and helped write the World Health Guidelines on Wheelchair Distribution in Remote Areas.

The driving force behind McDonald’s crusade has also been the business’s key success factor. “We address the needs of people,” she says simply, and in this respect at least social entrepreneurs are no different from their mainstream entrepreneurial peers.

All products start out being developed in response to an individual person’s need, and if a more universal use for that product is identified it is developed into a product range. But McDonald is adamant that the business always develops bespoke products, whether these will ultimately be commercially viable or not. In this respect she’s very different from businesses driven purely by the need to make a profit.  “We’re not prepared to give this side of the business up and I don’t see that we should. The business is still able to sustain itself. We exist to help people – this is the thing that has enabled us to make money in the first place,” she says.

Looking ahead

A recent grant from the SAB Foundation for Innovation Awards will allow McDonald to focus more on the kind of innovation that has driven ShonaQuip’s success from day one. She recognises this as her strong point: “I don’t really enjoy the day to day business side of things. I’d like to employ a general manager to take care of that part of the company. I see myself more as an innovator and as someone who wants to leave a legacy that’s better than the one I found,” she says. In that respect, she’s a true entrepreneur.

The rise of the social entrepreneur

Social entrepreneurship becomes more important as social needs increase and public resources shrink.

Quietly getting on with the job, social entrepreneurs are the businesses that usually fly under the radar. But recently, their role has been given increasing importance, particularly in South Africa. Referring to research that formed part of the 2009 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Report, Jacqui Kew from the UCT Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the UCT Graduate School of Business, points out, “The effect of the recent global recession and its impact on the global recovery is likely to be felt for a considerable time. Social entrepreneurship will, if anything, become more important as social needs increase while government and civil society resources decrease.” As people lose faith in government’s ability to find sustainable solutions to society’s problems, they may look increasingly to sustainable socially-minded business to achieve what’s required.

Juliet Pitman
Juliet Pitman is a features writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.