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Is to “be” a social entrepreneur proving a greater draw than the social change itself?

Organised by the Saïd Business School, Oxford, Emerge is, “the gathering for people who are committed to redefining the world in which we live”. Though predominantly attended by keen students all wanting to make their mark, there was definitely much to learn and experience for those of us who’ve worked in the nexus between business and social purpose for years.

Given the timing of the conference, politics, the role of government and the responsibility of civil society and business was high on the agenda. With the Trump victory days before and Brexit in our near past, the dejected atmosphere was palpable until veteran, and key note speaker, John Elkington pointed out that when governments fail, there is increased need for us to do more. Democracy and capitalism is failing us and viewed in that light, it’s actually an exciting time for those that feel passionate about creating something different. Now’s not the time to feel depressed, but is actually the time to get on and do. We left the room spurred on and ready for possibilities.

We know that entrepreneurship is getting increased airtime in Business School curriculums - not just cases to be studied but also as careers to be considered for those that might have been heading to the nearest investment bank. Daniela Papi-Thornton in her session on Impact provided some useful insights from her own experience as a social change maker and cited the growth of what she calls “Heropreneurship”. The desire to have a start-up and be an entrepreneur, often trumps the draw of previously sexy industries. Within the “social” space, the desire to “be” a social entrepreneur is often greater than the desire to fix a particular social ill, social ventures are sometimes considered a means to that end and a panacea. That combined with little or limited knowledge of the issues or geographies that the well intentioned want to work in and it becomes apparent that things might have gone a bit wonky. In order to create impact it’s vital that the problem is understood - it sounds simple, but it’s the successful who have delved deep in to understanding why things are the way the are, the cultural, socio-economic and political reasons for the status quo. Often entrepreneurs, funders and practitioners get caught up with the solution rather than spending time and resources to understand the problems truly and the change that is being sought (the book Beyond Better from other Skoll folk goes in to this in detail).

Some of the top tips that came out were valuable reminders and definitely things to ponder when providing companies, charities and social entrepreneurs (existing as well as would be) with counsel on how to move their programmes forward or to create new ones.

  1. Understand the problem through real emersion - the value of the “lived experience”.

  2. Appreciate that people help themselves out of poverty - you can facilitate, but you’re not the messiah.

  3. Delve in to what others have done right/ wrong and are doing now - how can you compliment successful initiatives and can you find a different way to do things better?

  4. If you can replicate then a partnership to take impact to scale may be better than a separate endeavour.

  5. Social enterprise is one mechanism out of many that need to work together to help create impact - the interconnected nature of challenges means that collaboration is more often than not, key.

Interestingly, I met a guy who said that after going through the Impact Canvas process, he’s going to spend more time thinking about the what - the problem he wants to help resolve, than declare himself as a social entrepreneur wannabe. Seems like the session had quite an impact!

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