This article is the second of a series on “Berlin’s Changemakers“, people with a passion to drive positive change in their communities by making use of their skills, knowledge, and network. With this series, I want to highlight these people and show that there are many ways to have a positive impact on our society and our planet.

I’m not sure anymore where exactly I met Tarek Mohamed Hassan the first time, but it has been in Berlin about two years ago. Today, Tarek works part-time as a junior consultant for the GIZ and self-employed as a strategic designer supporting NGOs, the public sector, corporates and startups in Europe, the US, the MENA region and Asia. As if that’s not enough, he is actively involved in various initiatives on the topics of inclusive innovation and conscious entrepreneurship. Tarek first got into Social Entrepreneurship during his studies in Taiwan. Upon returning to Germany, he started the Queer Refugees Network Leipzig, one of the first initiatives supporting LGBTIQ+ refugees. I am quite fascinated by all his work and engagements, which is why I thought he would fit perfectly into this series.

You are working in the international development and startup field. What exactly do you do?

I am working as a consultant at the intersection of digital transformation and service design, locally in Germany and also in international cooperation. I consult organisations and projects on how to be more human-centered and to design new products, services or systems. This could be a diversity strategy for HR, a new health insurance card system in a country in Sub-Sahara Africa.

How does a “normal” work day look like for you?

Being a consultant means no day looks the same, as you are usually on different consulting projects. One day, I might be reading through a study on plastic waste in South East Asia, and the next I am facilitating a workshop between a big corporate and a startup to look for fields of opportunity. A lot of my work is conceptual and process-driven. I love to see people coming out of a workshop or consulting session being more clear about what they want to achieve or solving a tough problem – it’s a bit like being a therapist for people’s work struggles.

You are also a Design Thinker and studied at the Hasso-Plattner-Institut in Potsdam. Can you briefly explain what that is and how you apply it in your work?

Design Thinking is an iterative, possibility-driven and human-centered approach to turn ideas into “innovations”, thus creating products, services, or systems that have an impact, may it be social or commercial. I try to be human-centered in everything I do: When we work, we often forget who we do this work for – who is looking at the poster I am creating? Who will be using the educational material I am compiling? The School of Design Thinking at the Hasso-Plattner-Institute in Potsdam was instrumental in changing my mindset and introduced me to the world of design-led innovation.

Like many others in Berlin, you are not originally from Berlin. What made or motivated you to move here?

Right now, I am spending my time between Berlin and Frankfurt am Main. This is a great mix: I get inspired in Berlin, which often feels like a playground and sandbox, but also feels very isolated and self-involved. Working in Frankfurt feels more like the “real” world, in which I can apply what I experiment with in Berlin.

What do you mean with Berlin feels isolated and self-involved?

I love the Berlin Startup approach and mindset – what is missing to me is the transfer into the “system”. Startups are great to experiment and using this sandbox approach helps to explore solutions, but we need to look into how we move beyond a hype (I see you, Blockchain), and look at how traditional actors can adopt new approaches. Working with GIZ, these approaches are sometimes swiped away because they’re a “bit too Berlin”, meaning not close enough to the realities of many companies. I hope that we as the (social) entrepreneurship community will learn how to translate our vocabulary and approaches to engage with governments, academia and bigger corporates – otherwise, we keep staying in a bubble.

How would you describe social entrepreneurship and what does it mean to you?

Social entrepreneurship to me means striving to solve a wicked social problem with new forms of collaboration or technology. Often times, definitions of social entrepreneurship say that they require a profit-oriented business model and thus exclude NGOs. To me, clever NGOs with new services can be social enterprises, too. Social entrepreneurship to me is more of a mindset of striving for change, experimentation and being bold.

You are often in Asia, in particular in China. How is the social entrepreneurship scene different over there compared to Germany’s?

Going to East Asia and Southeast Asia has been very transformational in questioning Eurocentricity, on how startups can operate and how innovation processes work. What I observe is a huge hunger to innovate – people have bold ideas and places like Shenzhen are heaven for prototyping. May it be creating video games for mental health or designing a braille smartwatch for people with seeing disabilities – the social startup ecosystem in East and Southeast Asia leaves me in awe every time. East and Southeast Asia are such diverse regions, so I refrain from generalisations. What I do find refreshing is the optimism that is shown towards technology, whereas Europeans, especially Germans, tend to be more risk-averse and pessimist when it comes to new technologies.

Looking back on your journey so far, what would you say helped you the most to be where you are right now? Anything you would do differently if you could go back in time?

“Throw yourself against life” – I’ve been struggling with anxiety as long as I can remember. Trying to strike the balance between keeping a good mental health and getting out of your comfort zone is hard. Moving to Turkey, to Taiwan, to China, learning a new language every two years – those are the things that keep me engaged and on my toes. The mindset that I’m “never there”, but rather about “staying curious” on the journey has helped me a lot to do things I never thought I could. I’m not a fan of regret but of learning and adjustment. What I’d like to adjust in the future is that I want to make more time to exercise (such a powerful tool to improve life) and question the productivity and “keeping busy” paradigm. We shouldn’t feel like we have to be productive around the clock in order to have self-worth. I see so many people struggling with this and think that especially changemakers should give themselves a break. Our community is full of burn-out risks and we are in huge need of mental hygiene support.

How important or helpful have communities and networks been for you?

I don’t believe in individuals in making changes but in systems and networks. It takes about 25% of any given system to trigger behaviour change. My community of social intra– and entrepreneurs, as well as social justice activists, are the ones that keep me going when I question our work.

How did you find the people you talk about?

Accessing different communities happens through different channels: For the social innovation community, I find Meetups extremely helpful – hit up your local Impact Hub, Social Innovation Lab or other social innovation ecosystems. People are friendly and usually happy to help you get started on your journey as a social intra– or entrepreneur. If you work in a bigger organization and want to connect to intrapreneurs, start a lunch or an “innovation coffee” – those kind of meetings usually attract the right crowds. In intrapreneurship, I always follow the mantra of “start with the ones that are ready” and don’t spend too much energy on the naysayers.

What tips would you give people who strive to have a similar job than you?

Don’t get ready, get started! Interview people to find out what conversations we have in the field of international cooperation, take an online course on Human-Cantered Design, and I recommend anyone to tip their toes into the water and network by doing internships – I still believe it’s the quickest way to understand organizations from within. Every year, I try to spend a couple of days at organisations that I admire to learn from them.

What plans do you have for the future? Where do you hope to be in like 3-5 years? Any long-term plans?

My current focus is to complement my strategy heavy work with more hands-on “making”: Front-end development and graphic design are on my list for this year, but my Cat App is not going to be a best seller on the AppStore yet. I also picked up Japanese this year and would love to work on innovation design challenges in Japan in the near future. I think Tokyo is a firework of innovation and as a Cyberpunk fan, an interesting sandbox for the future. Apart from professional development, I want to improve my relationships with families and friends, especially making more time and trying to support my surrounding more. We all lead such busy lives, juggling all of this is tough (ugh, #adulting, right?). How do you to change society if you can’t even empower the people around you?