There are huge opportunities for universities to make immensely valuable contributions to the social impact sector. Universities are a powerful tool for grooming the next generation of social scientists, policymakers, business leaders, civil servants, and professionals. And every social enterprise needs an army of well-educated employees—marketing directors, accountants, and others—who have earned a university degree.
But the learning of social entrepreneurs is a different matter. I believe these individuals learn most effectively outside the walls of universities, in practical ways that are not traditionally academic. And for social change to happen on a wide scale, we need to welcome people from all backgrounds to become social entrepreneurs—something universities, in their current form, simply can’t do.
Why Universities Can’t Be Truly Diverse
People who have a deep understanding of the social problem they seek to address are best positioned to create solutions to social change.
That means we need to empower people from all backgrounds to start and grow social enterprises—especially people from the poorest and most “disadvantaged” communities. In my experience at School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE)—which runs practical learning programs to support people from all backgrounds to start and scale social enterprises, charities, and community projects—I’ve found that such people are highly driven to see their solutions through.
In fact, social entrepreneurs who have direct experience with the issues they’re tackling often excel in building solutions that are fit-for-purpose. And when people from poorer communities are successful in their entrepreneurial pursuits, they model leadership. They inspire their families and neighbours. They create organizations that keep employment and wages in their communities. These are compelling arguments for supporting the learning of aspiring social entrepreneurs from the poorest and most socially excluded groups.
That’s why entry to social entrepreneurship learning programs must be accessible to all—particularly those on the frontlines of social problems. But here’s the rub for universities that teach social entrepreneurship: Universities are not accessible to all. They are meritocratic by nature—and for good reason. Universities need everyone to be at the same level to access what they’re teaching. Every student must attain a certain academic standard to gain a place and must push through to a certain academic standard to gain their qualification.
Like any university-based program, social entrepreneurship programs often have to exclude people who haven’t accrued the “correct” qualifications. This leads to homogeneity in student intake and blocks others—including people creating solutions to social problems with which they have direct experience—from accessing important educational resources.
So how do we welcome and empower people from all backgrounds to become social entrepreneurs? How do we create a learning experience that is as accessible to someone who has no official qualifications as it is to someone who has a master’s degree? Here are four strategies we use in our own work:
We believe that learning through stories, and from practitioners and other students—rather than through traditional, theory-based academic teaching—are critical. SSE uses a learning-by-doing and action-learning methodology, in which students share personal and professional experiences with each other, take action on an idea, and then reflect on and refine their approach.
(Social entrepreneurs explain SSE’s action-learning approach.)
At SSE, we invite entrepreneurs to share stories with our students, in person, about their experiences of running organizations—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The focus of our programs is not on memorizing frameworks about best practices, or scrutinizing academic papers and business cases, but on sharing experiences with others. So when students learn about marketing, for example, they’re not inundated with jargon like “the seven Ps,” “the Ansoff Matrix,” and “Porter’s Five Forces.” Instead, they listen to the first-hand experiences of another entrepreneur and draw out the insights most relevant to them.
(Leah McPherson, founder of the urban farming enterprise Cultivate London, shares her experiences with marketing, in the style of an SSE learning session.)
We believe this story-based approach to learning makes our programs accessible to all prospective students, regardless of their educational background.
We also try to make our recruitment processes as inclusive as possible. SSE is a social franchise, so we recruit students through schools close to their local communities. Our messaging explains that we welcome people from all backgrounds. We encourage referrals by asking our students to invite their peers to apply, and we’ve been fortunate that our inclusive approach has spread through word of mouth—including among people who may feel excluded from other learning opportunities.
Our recent “Social Impact Review” study analyzed the social impact of our largest program and found that one in four of our students has direct experience with the social problem they seek to address. One such student, Junior Smart, became involved in gangs while he was growing up and was later sentenced to 12 years in prison for a drug-related offence. In 2006, he founded the SOS Project, which supports young people aged 15-30 who are at risk of involvement in gang-related activity and negative lifestyle choices. Since its launch, the project has helped 3,000 young Londoners, and the re-offending rates of clients have decreased from an average of 75 percent to just 12 percent.
(Junior Smart explains how he became a social entrepreneur.)
Half of our fellows work in the 20-percent most-deprived geographical communities in the United Kingdom. A quarter of them are from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities. We have students with PhDs sitting next to people who left school at 14. Throughout the typical journey of school to university, you’re unlikely to find that variety in a room where learning is happening.
It’s incredibly refreshing when you see this diversity in action. Social entrepreneurs from very different backgrounds experience two-way learning. That might sound idealistic, but it’s true. Building connections across social and economic divides builds credibility for all involved. A social entrepreneur from a much poorer community can gain access to networks from someone richer and better connected. The changemaker from a more privileged background, who may have no direct experience of the issue they’re tackling, can develop a more-informed solution by building meaningful relationships with those who have.
Bringing people together in this way creates the diverse connections needed to unlock social change. Our research found that: 1) 96 percent of our students believe SSE helps them connect with people they might not otherwise meet, and 2) the relationships created in our learning cohorts last—19 out of 20 SSE fellows stay in touch with each other after graduating.
When universities block access to some social entrepreneurs—on the basis of their formal education, for example—they limit the potential of students to make diverse connections.
A Sense of Legitimacy
Finally, it’s vital that we help social entrepreneurs develop “soft” skills alongside technical knowledge—especially when students in the same program have very different backgrounds. Of course, educators must ensure that students are equipped with the “hard” knowledge they need to run a successful organization—such as financial processes, regulation, and legal terminology. But we must also work to develop and improve each individual’s confidence, attitude, legitimacy, mind-set, behavior, self-awareness, and acknowledgement of their role as a changemaker. We believe these skills are often pre-requisites for entrepreneurs to take action.
While some university-based, social entrepreneurship programs recognize the importance of these soft skills, many still teach in a traditional, academic way that does not afford the opportunity for developing these important attributes.
When it comes down to it, most universities do not behave like entrepreneurs. Due to their scale and standing, they have to be systematic and structured, and struggle to be agile. This means most universities simply cannot align with the entrepreneurs they are trying to nurture; they simply are not entrepreneurial enough for entrepreneurs.
Universities are a vast and vital resource for society, of course. And academia plays a crucial role in the social impact sector through formulating policy, conducting research, and developing evaluation tools and investment products. But I believe the majority of today’s universities are not as well equipped to teach social entrepreneurship as their non-academic counterparts. We would do well to imagine and support more programs that use tools such as action learning, inclusive recruitment, student diversity, and soft skill building, with the aim of tapping the talent and expertise of those who have experienced social problems first-hand, and who so often lie outside university walls.