Monday, July 1, 2019

why do we keep insisting on keeping social and 'regular' entrepreneurs apart, when both have the same sh!t to deal with..?

In my experience of supporting various start-up programmes throughout the UK over the last 20 years, and having walked alongside many for part of their journey, most entrepreneurs don't call themselves that. 
They're simply people trying to make a go of an idea to either help them fix a problem they see in their community or help them get a bit more financial security for themselves (usually both).

So I'm increasingly frustrated when I keep seeing national sector bodies re-enforcing a narrative that social and non-social entrepreneurs need special treatment that somehow doesn't seem to apply to the other:

It therefore seems that if you identify as social or not as an entrepreneur, you're probably going to be sharing the same needs, concerns, and preferences for how you access the support you want - and this isn't anything new either: cross-sector research I did into social enterprises, charities, and private businesses all the way back in 2003 (an era of dial-up internet!) found that regardless of which sector people identified as being part of, they all had the same development needs and shared preferences for how they accessed learning and training.

And to my mind that suggests that we're continuing to miss a trick in amplifying the impact that entrepreneurs could be making on society's problems, and the wider economy - why are we creating this artificial segregation of entrepreneurs based on their founding motivations, when the support they need is the same.  And surely by learning and growing together they might better encourage, inspire, challenge, and ultimately "be" more than the sum of their respective camps..?

In the enterprise programmes I've been fortunate to have been able to manage and lead over the years, I've always sought to encourage such a 'mixing it up' philosophy, and although none were ever evaluated on the grounds of it being mixed-sector entrepreneurs, no-one in them seemed to have any problem in undertaking their journey as an entrepreneur with the others who had differing visions or motivations to their own.

So when we will we start to see (social) enterprise support agents admit that these divisions between sectors aren't really that valid or justifiable, and in doing so, be able to be more inclusive in releasing support into our wider communities and economies for the benefit of all..?


  1. Hi Adrian,

    Sophie here, head of communications at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. I think you raise some interesting points.

    There is obviously some overlap in the learning styles of social entrepreneurs and ‘regular’ entrepreneurs (to use your phrase). They are, after all, both types of entrepreneur! But, as our name suggest, the School for Social Entrepreneurs exists to support social entrepreneurs. We have spent 22 years learning how best to support them to become better leaders. The article you link to by us (above) shares some insights we’ve gained along the way, underpinned by an independent evaluation of 1,350 of the social entrepreneurs we’ve supported.

    I don’t think we are pushing a “narrative that social and non-social entrepreneurs need special treatment that somehow doesn't seem to apply to the other”. It’s just that we simply don’t have the expertise or evidence to talk about ‘regular’ entrepreneurs at SSE, as those are not the people we support, and they never have been.

    But I can talk a little from my personal experience here. For context, I spent the majority of my career as a journalist and editor specialising in entrepreneurs and start-ups (the ‘regular’ variety).

    Many of the insights into how social entrepreneurs learn that we’ve identified at SSE are indeed shared by non-social entrepreneurs: a preference for learning by doing, for example. But I think there are some notable differences between social and ‘regular’ entrepreneurs.

    As our evidence shows in the article, social entrepreneurs often struggle with sales. Generating income from trading tends to take a backseat when your focus is on helping vulnerable people or tackling climate change, at least in the early days. That’s very different from ‘regular’ entrepreneurs, who in my experience are well-versed in sales and concepts like profit margin and cashflow. Their model is (typically) wholly based on income from sales, so they need to have strong sales skills. (Social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, might start out with lots of income from grant and donations.)

    ‘Regular’ entrepreneurs are also often natural managers and leaders. They know when to delegate, how to manage people, and how to build networks that can unlock their next steps. The very best founders hire people who are better than them, especially in areas that they find a drain on their energy.

    About half of the UK’s social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, hire people who are excluded from the labour market. This means they need support in learning how to become better managers. They are not head-hunting the best talent in their industry, as a sensible ‘regular’ entrepreneur would - they are more likely to be recruiting people who have rarely or never held down jobs. So it’s not surprising that “being an employer” is the second-lowest-ranked business skill among social entrepreneurs we support, before they start our programmes.

    Without wanting to ramble on for too long, a quick whizz through other key challenges faced by social entrepreneurs, but not their ‘regular’ cousins: impact measurement and impact models; diversification of funding streams; what legal form to take and whether to have an asset lock; raising social investment; communicating what it means to be a social enterprise; how to develop and share evidence of impact approach; governance particular to less-common legal structures (e.g. CIC), and accountability to the community they serve; whether to pursue certification or accreditation to prove ethical credentials; balancing purpose with profit.

    This is why the School for Social Entrepreneurs exists. We help social entrepreneurs and social-sector leaders navigate these nuances, which are simply not covered by support bodies and media for ‘regular’ entrepreneurs.

    Of course, I hope that one day all entrepreneurs will be social entrepreneurs, and those who are driven profit rather than purpose will no longer be called ‘regular’. But until that day, we still need the likes of the School for Social Entrepreneurs.

    1. Thanks for picking up this 'gauntlet' Sophie - pleased that you've redressed some of these arguments, and helped to push this debate a further forward.

      The original blog has seemed to catch the interest of a number of people across different social media channels, so it's obviously a theme which many are keen to explore further, which makes your comments above all the more welcome as contribution :-)