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Creating opportunities through the power of language

Macarena Hernandez de Obeso, is a current Skoll Scholar and is dedicated to economic opportunity and prosperity for deprived communities in Latin America.

She shares the story of starting her new social enterprise that aims to bring together a global community, all the while studying her Oxford MBA!

In September of 2016 I started the most incredible journey of my life so far, an MBA at Oxford. At the beginning, I was sure that I was here to strengthen my business knowledge to be able to combine a sustainable business model with a social mission. However, I wasn’t sure which path I was going to achieve it in the future. I had in mind three options:

1. come back to the social enterprise where I was working before

2. join an international organisation or enterprise focusing on the design of tools and impact metrics to enhance the work of social entrepreneurs

3. start my own venture

Surprisingly, in less than two months, one of these became a reality.

Meeting my Co-Founder

During the first week of my MBA, I met Ana Maria. Being both born in Latin America and having dedicated part of our life to social impact, we realised that we shared a powerful goal; to create opportunities for people in Latin America by embracing their talents and helping them to reach their full potential. She had the idea to fund a charitable project offering Spanish language practice for foreigners through conversations with native speakers within the project’s community. I loved the idea, but not the business model; I thought it should be a social enterprise that could fund itself by creating access to economic opportunities and a flexible way of income for all Spanish native speakers in Latin America.

Launching our social enterprise

In November of 2016, we founded Language Amigo. Today, we are connecting, through video calls, language ’Learners’ who want to practice conversational Spanish, with native speaking ‘Amigos’ from Latin America. For Amigos, Language Amigo is a flexible way of income and for Learners, Language Amigo is a flexible way to practice.

Through Language Amigo, we are not offering Spanish teachers. We are offering to language learners the opportunity to put into practice their foreign language knowledge and have real world conversations with real and friendly people, Amigos. I believe that the main objective to learn a language is to be able to connect with people from another country, culture, and background. Through Language Amigo, you can do that.

Language Amigo's first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo's first Learner-Amigo call

Language Amigo’s first Learner-Amigo call

Challenges

I was very happy working on my new venture, but with every new path comes its challenges and scepticism. In February 2017, I was delivering a presentation about Language Amigo, to my communication skills’ group at the Oxford Language Centre. I explained that to generate income, Language Amigo keeps a percentage of the cost of the calls conducted between Amigos and Learners. The first question that I received after this presentation, from a Chilean student, was: “are you exploiting Latin American youngsters to create a business?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I wasn’t sure what feeling this question had caused me. Anger? Deception? Surprise? Indignation? I realised that it is not obvious to everyone that a collaborative economy business model, such as Language Amigo, is creating economic inclusion for people who did not have an economic opportunity before. I was conscious that industries threatened by collaborative economy models, such as hospitality and logistics, have been raising critique against successful platforms and putting pressure into regulatory institutions. Nonetheless, the fact that an Oxford student from Latin American believes that we were exploiting our Amigos, completely shocked me.

But, we continue to grow

I believe that Language Amigo is creating value not only for Amigos but also for Learners. We are developing the means to create social and economic transactions between them. We are aggregating and connecting supply with demand that otherwise would never connect. We are constantly looking for potential customers to grow the economic opportunities for Amigos. We are constantly updating the Amigos’ training and generating support resources to improve the experience for the Learners.

Why is the value of creating a network and the means to include people into the economy undervalued? What is harder: to produce and deliver the product or service, or to find the market and attract it to generate demand for the product or service?

Currently, we are looking for institutions such as language centres, schools, universities, and enterprises that already have Spanish students to become our partners. We would like to be able to offer Language Amigo to their students and to co-create the best tool for them, their students, and the Amigos. Together we will be able to demonstrate that it is possible to create fair opportunities through the power of language.

Language Amigo Co-founders: Ana Maria (Left) Macarena (Right)

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Are multiple definitions of social entrepreneurship holding us back?

By Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow,  Tanja Collavo.

Some social entrepreneurs and social enterprises are expressing the desire to avoid such a label. Additionally, knowledge among citizens of what social entrepreneurship is and means is still generally low, even though the sector has been around for several decades. What might be amiss? I argue that the ongoing failure to coalesce around a recognised definition or model of social entrepreneurship is part of the problem, revealing risks and opportunities for the sector at a worldwide level.

My research on social entrepreneurship in England suggests there are three different – and only partially overlapping – conceptions of what social entrepreneurship is and of how it should be supported. The first and most prominent part of the sector is focused on the concept of social enterprise, that is, businesses trading for social purpose. It is very heterogeneous in terms of players involved and ways in which social enterprises are described and organised. Within it, the main source of funding for both social enterprises and sector intermediaries is the government, and both the citizen and business sectors are mostly seen as customers.

The second and more “niche” part of the sector is more cohesive and focused on social entrepreneurs, described as lone heroes disrupting the system to eliminate the root causes of social inequality and injustice. Here, the role of the government is very limited and businesses and charities are seen as advisors and funders, rather than customers, while communities are the beneficiaries.

The third one, despite being the original conception of the term in England and the most widely adopted “on the ground”, is presently the most neglected by the public discourse. It describes social entrepreneurs and enterprises as acting to enhance their communities, either through involving community members in economic activities and decision making, or redistributing resources within a given area or population of interest. In this part of the sector, boundaries and players’ roles are very blurred and there are multiple typologies of social entrepreneurial activity, sometimes overlapping with other areas above.

Is this division a trivial matter interesting only for academic debates? I argue that there are a number of important practical issues, which either directly or indirectly stem from the lack of a clear definition. First of all, it hinders the ability of government or international bodies to create tax benefits or effective funds to support social entrepreneurship. Without being able to constrain the field of organisations entitled to receive such support, such efforts are frequently ineffective.

Secondly, the lack of a clear definition contributes to maintaining low levels of knowledge about what social entrepreneurship and social enterprises are, and what their value for society is. This, in turn, often hampers their ability to attract private funds. I know, indeed, from the interviews I conducted for my PhD project that some social enterprises and entrepreneurs face the problem of being perceived as “too business-like” for foundations, charities and private donors and “too social” for traditional investors and businesses (and sometimes even for the social investment sector).

Thirdly, the lack of a clear definition means that it is also much harder to establish roles and rules of interaction within the sector. Businesses are sometimes requested to be commercial partners or to involve social enterprises in their supply chain and sometimes they are requested to act as advisers and philanthropists. Government and local authorities would like to outsource public services to social ventures rather than to businesses but often they find themselves unable to distinguish between the two and to obtain the guarantee that there will be no “mission drift” once a contract is awarded.

Finally, the lack of a clear definition implies a lack of clear sector boundaries and of a clear positioning within the wider economic system. Many supporters and insiders continue to proclaim their hope that social entrepreneurship will become mainstream and either change the way that all businesses operate (‘social enterprise’) or will make the whole third sector more efficient and financially sustainable (‘social entrepreneurship’). Can these things happen while the sector keeps pushing in different directions, thus reducing its relevance both within the business and the third and public sectors?

I would like to conclude this post with two thought-provoking questions. First of all: why not refer to social enterprises as sustainable businesses? This might be the first step to merge this part of the sector with movements such as the B Corporations, in order to jointly represent a new, more socially-savvy side of the business sector, able to ask for tax incentives and to attract social investors and funds. Social entrepreneurship could be reserved as a definition of innovative projects carried out by third sector organizations trying to tackle the root causes and not just the symptoms of social issues, thus distinguishing them from the traditional charities and NGOs delivering fundamental but more traditional social products and services. Activities not fitting with these two definitions but that are important at community-level could be labelled as “community-based entrepreneurship” or just be re-included in the broader third sector.

Secondly, can sector supporters and intermediaries try to find a compromise sector definition accepted by all? As expressed by some interviewees contacted for my PhD research, the most influential organisations in the sector appear to be connecting and networking with one another but are in reality very territorial. They all hold on to their own conception of social entrepreneurship and they all hope to drive the sector in their desired direction, thus making it increasingly difficult to find a solution to the definitional and support debate. Sometimes creating a good ecosystem of support might entail stepping back and coordinating what happens as a skilled director rather than as the star of the show. Allowing the formation of clarity around the sector, its definition and its boundaries, while continuing to lobby and campaign for it, might really unlock those financial resources, public support and understanding that many organisations are craving for.

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Africa Trek 2017: Oxford MBAs visit Nairobi

By Gillian Benjamin, Oxford MBA (2016-17)

A group of 2016-17 Oxford MBAs go on the annual Africa Trek. This year’s destination: Nairobi and Kigali

Part 1: Nairobi

 

A man pushes his bicycle through Toi Market, a thriving second-hand clothing market in Nairobi that stretches multiple blocks, eventually ending in Kibera slum.

A man pushes his bicycle through Toi Market, a thriving second-hand clothing market in Nairobi that stretches multiple blocks, eventually ending in Kibera slum.

In April 2017 17 MBA’s spent an unforgettable two weeks in Kenya and Rwanda. The student-driven trek aimed to expose participants to the business context in each country. Organised by students from the region, it tapped into local networks to give an ‘insiders view’ of each city. During the April break there were three other concurrent international treks and electives taking place in Johannesburg, New York, the Middle East Singapore and Hong Kong.

I chose to join the Africa trek as I had limited experience and knowledge of East Africa (ashamedly, as I am a native South African). I was curious to learn more about the thriving economies of the region and gain a comparative understanding of Eastern versus Southern Africa.

The trek exposed us to diverse companies and business models, from a consulting firm helping international development organisations better support local SMEs to an off-grid energy company serving the bottom of the pyramid. Through each company presentation we learnt a little more about the nuances and opportunities of the region.

While the company visits were fascinating, another area of great value came from the opportunity to spend two weeks with my classmates. In the rush of a 12-month MBA there is limited time for slow, deep conversation. However, the interstitial moments of travel provided the perfect opportunity to bond; a 20-minute cab ride to the airport or sharing a meal over dinner gave each of us the opportunity to learn a little more about others’ backgrounds and future ambitions. The accrual of these small interactions created a special bond that will live on well beyond the MBA.

Open Capital Advisors

Students on the MBA Africa Trek at Open Capital consultants in Nairobi, with alumnus Holden Bonwit in the centre.

Students on the MBA Africa Trek at Open Capital consultants in Nairobi, with alumnus Holden Bonwit in the centre.

Open Capital Advisors is a management consulting and financial advisory firm with 40 employees spread across offices in Kampala (Uganda), Lusaka (Zambia) and Nairobi (Kenya). They offer consulting services to local businesses, investors and international organisations, with two-thirds of their investment work being in the social impact space. We were hosted by Oxford Saïd alumnus, Holden Bonwit (MBA 2013 – 2014).

Bonwit shared what he believes are the three of the biggest challenges for growth in the region:

  • Talent acquisition and lack of human capital to implement strategies
  • Lack of infrastructure
  • Lack of access to capital for SMEs (due to a miss-match between the needs of SMEs and the instruments offered by international Development Finance Institutions)

He spoke of the enjoyment he gets from working on meaningful development projects where his skills and expertise have real impact. He also introduced us to the concept of the Kenyan side-hustle (or multiple side-hustles), evidenced by the fact that a single family usually has about 11 discrete income streams.

Safaricom

MBA students meeting with CEO of Safaricom Bob Collymore and his team

MBA students meeting with CEO of Safaricom Bob Collymore and his team

We were honoured to spend time with Bob Collymore –  CEO of Safaricom – Kenya’s largest telecom. It has a valuation of $ 8 billion and accounts for approximately 40% of the Kenyan stock market. M-PESA, the pioneering mobile money solution, is one of Safaricom’s products.

Continuing the narrative from Open Capital Advisors, Collymore spoke of how their people strategy is their biggest strategy, saying, “You can have a bad strategy but a good team and the outcome will be good, however, the opposite is not true.” With a firm belief that quality products are created by engaged staff, he spoke of how the company strives to ensure their people have a good work-life balance and get eight hours of sleep – allocating each staff member a ‘thrive-buddy’ to keep them on track and ensure they aren’t overworked.

The company takes their position as a dominant player seriously, seeing it as their responsibility to act as a good corporate citizen and set the tone for others. Safaricom was one of the first corporates to release a full sustainability report and embrace the Sustainable Development Goals, with each corporate function selecting the goals they wish to work towards and then feeding back progress directly to Collymore’s office.

Collymore’s commitment to sustainability and good corporate governance is also evidenced by his membership in the B-team, which brings together business leaders like Unliever’s Paul Polman, Richard Brandson, and Arianna Huffington to push businesses to become more transparent and sustainable, as well as sitting on the board of the United Nations Global Compact, the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative.

Andela

Two Andela students working in the chill-out area of the Nairobi campus.

Two Andela students working in the chill-out area of the Nairobi campus.

“Brilliance is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not.”

Andela’s goal is to spread tech opportunity to Africa by finding and training Africa’s next generation of tech talent and connecting them to demand in the West. This is achieved through a two-sided business model: on the supply-side, African candidates apply to join a four-year paid Technical Leadership Program designed to shape them into elite software developers. On the demand-side, a 50-strong sales team based in the US sells Andela’s services corporates looking for excellent tech talent.

Joshua Mwaniki, Country Director for Kenya, told us they receive around 2000 applications per month from people eager to join the Fellowship. With an acceptance rate of 10 – 15 people monthly, applicants have a 0.5% chance of getting in to the programme. What differentiates the Andela from other tech training programmes is their comprehensive Learning Map, which maps a Fellow’s progress against clearly delineated hard and soft skills on a daily and weekly basis.

Andela’s biggest challenge is gearing up to train enough talent, as there is currently more work available than there are programmers to work on the jobs. But upping supply in Africa, Andela is hoping to spread opportunities a little more equally. Their new campus currently under construction will house 1000 students and will go some way to achieving this vision.

Oxford Saïd Alumni Dinner

Current students met with recent alumni who are currently working in Nairobi at Burn and Dalberg.

Current students met with recent alumni who are currently working in Nairobi at Burn and Dalberg.

M-KOPA

Chad Larson, Chief Credit Officer, Co-Founder and Oxford Saïd alumnus shows students the entry-level M-KOPA solar unit.

Chad Larson, Chief Credit Officer, Co-Founder and Oxford Saïd alumnus shows students the entry-level M-KOPA solar unit.

M-KOPA is a pioneer in off-grid, pay-as-you-go solar power systems. With a team of 300 customer care agents on call 24-hours a day, and an on-the-ground salesforce of over a 1000 people, the company is growing rapidly.

Their entry level unit comprises an 8W solar panel, 3 LED lights, a LED torch, a radio and a phone charger. Customers pay an upfront payment of £22 and then pay a 40p daily instalment over a year to pay off the remainder of the unit, where after the unit is theirs. The unit comes with a one-year warranty and has an estimated battery life of four years.

On the ground sales agents help customers calculate the cost-benefit analysis of switching from kerosene to solar, by adding up how much they spend in a year on kerosene, batteries and charging their mobile phone. Once totalled, the entry level M-KOPA unit comes in around one-third cheaper during the payment year, then giving clients a further three years of energy before they need to replace the battery.

Most interesting however is how the company views solar as the foothold into a customers’ home. When a customer is nearing the end of their year-long repayment schedule they receive a call from an M-KOPA agent offering a variety of products; a solar-powered TV, a water-harvesting tank, a bicycle, a cook stove, a starter-pack for chicken farming or a smartphone – any of which can be purchased by extending their existing payment plan. Chad Larson, Chief Credit Officer, Co-Founder and SBS Alum stated, “We are a finance company, selling useful capital assets that save people money.”  M-KOPA is focusing their energies on building a ladder of household products, from basic to more advanced, to improve the lives of the poor.

Dalberg

Students shared lunch with Dalberg staff followed by a Q&A session.

Students shared lunch with Dalberg staff followed by a Q&A session.

“Until the change is done, our work isn’t done”. These were the words of Edwin Macharia, Dalberg Partner and Regional Director of Africa, speaking about how the firm goes far beyond the work of traditional consultants (who are renowned for leave their strategy decks for clients to implement). Dalberg is a platform of companies committed to global development and innovation, including Dalberg Global Development Advisors (consulting), D.Capital (Investment advisory and impact investing), D.Research (data, intelligence and analysis), DIG (Design Impact Group focusing on human centred design) and an implementation support arm.

Dalberg is ten years old and currently has six offices on the continent. Their client mix is one-third governments and large international organisations (such as the UN, DIFD and the World Bank), one-third social sector organisations and foundations and one-third private businesses.

The company is also focused on creating self-driven projects where they spot opportunity areas. Macharia recognises the privileged position the company holds, with contacts in just about every major foundation and development agency in the world. He said, “We are one, maybe two phone calls away from anyone in the world. What are we going to do with that?” One such example is Unleash, an ambitious project driven by Dalberg and other partners, bringing 1000 young innovators into a global innovation lab focused on the Sustainable Development Goals.

Maua Project (Wrigleys)

Mathare Slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Mathare Slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Maua project representatives speaking to MBA students in the Mathare Slum, describing the benefits of the project on the ground.

Maua project representatives speaking to MBA students in the Mathare Slum, describing the benefits of the project on the ground.

The Maua Project is a project of the Mars Catalyst, Mars Incorporated’s internal think tank. In 2014, Mars’ leadership announced their intention to become the ‘most mutual company’ in the world, delivering value to all stakeholders involved in their value chain.

Maua, Swahili for ‘flower’, is a route-to-market mutuality project in Kenya. It develops micro-entrepreneurs, called Uplifters, who act as sub-distributors connecting stockpoints to retailers, predominantly in areas where Mars currently doesn’t distribute to outlets. This creates work for the Uplifters, and increased market penetration for Mars.

The project makes use of a ‘hybrid value chain’, partnering with a range of organisations and non-profits to support various programme elements like recruitment, training and access to tools. Partners include a logistics company, World Bicycle Relief, Ashoka, a microfinance company and M&E support. In 2016 Maua had 368 Uplifters involved in the programme and aim to increase this to 590 by the end of 2017.

Oxford and Cambridge Dinner hosted by Oxford Saïd alumna, Adema Sangale

The Africa Trek group was hosted by Adema Sangale, Vice-President of World Bicycle Relief (https://worldbicyclerelief.org) in Africa, who brought together alums from both universities who work Nairobi.

The Africa Trek group was hosted by Adema Sangale, Vice-President of World Bicycle Relief in Africa, who brought together alums from both universities who work Nairobi.

Naivasha and Nakuru

After a week of company visits we left the city to see some wildlife and have some well-earned rest.

It’s not every day that you get to summit a dormant volcano (Mount Longonot) and then get to hike around its rim.

It’s not every day that you get to summit a dormant volcano (Mount Longonot) and then get to hike around its rim.

Day safari at Lake Nakuru National Park.

Day safari at Lake Nakuru National Park.

Giraffes at Nakuru National Park.

Giraffes at Nakuru National Park.

Bird watching on Lake Nakuru.

Bird watching on Lake Nakuru.

Hanging with the hippos on Lake Naivasha.

Hanging with the hippos on Lake Naivasha.

Part 2 of Africa Trek 2017 coming soon where the MBAs head to Kigali…

Author: Gillian Benjamin

Gillian Benjamin - HeadshotGillian Benjamin is a social design practitioner from South Africa. Driven to use design to create social impact, she founded a design studio to serve social justice organisations and later worked at the Cape Craft and Design Institute running design thinking projects in healthcare, education and the built environment.

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Amphibious academics: making research matter

By Julian Cottee, Skoll Centre Research & Insights Programme Manager

Our previous blog looked at ‘Six Reasons Why Research Matters for Social Entrepreneurship’, ranging from gaining a deep understanding of problem and solution landscapes, to innovation, and a critical birds-eye view of the sector. The Skoll Centre has since been exploring research for social entrepreneurship through a series of seminars led by impact-focused early career researchers from across Oxford University. Each has discussed their own research experiences and drawn out lessons for better aligning research with the needs of the social innovators.

Evidence and impact

Evidence and impact evaluation are top of the list for many practitioners when asked how research can help their work. Anna Custers, a Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow, explored this topic in depth through her experiences with a number of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) assessing the impact of poverty reduction measures in the Global South. The RCT methodology, originally designed for evaluating the impact of medical interventions, is now becoming more widely used outside of clinical settings. Social scientists in a range of fields are adopting RCT approaches, and while many policymakers view them as a ‘gold standard’ for evidence of impact, they are not uncontroversial. RCTs are complex, lengthy and expensive to set up, and they can only be used to evaluate a narrow gamut of interventions. Their strength in demonstrating the counterfactual – what happens in groups not receiving the intervention – also raises significant ethical questions. If demonstrating impact through RCTs were to become a routine part of the funding and policymaking landscape for social entrepreneurship, the range of projects would be curtailed, the speed of implementation would be reduced, and additional research funding would be needed. Further discussions revolve around the question of how much evidence is ‘enough’ to demonstrate impact, and to what extent this differs depending on the scale of the initiative being assessed. An expensive RCT might be appropriate for a highly scalable ‘big bet’ intervention that can be widely replicated if impact can be robustly demonstrated, but many, if not most, projects are smaller and more locally specific.

Ideas around the role of research in evidence provision were further developed by Dr Jenny Tran, speaking about a recent Skoll Centre-funded research project that interviewed 31 policymakers, funders and practitioners in the field of social innovation in healthcare in low- and middle- income countries. The interviews probed attitudes and beliefs relating to evidence within these three groups. Among practitioners for instance, responses ranged from seeing research and evidence as an accountability mechanism – “Research is a tool of justice…how are we holding ourselves accountable to our patients?” – to something that just needs to be done to satisfy the expectations of funders – “We do what we have to do”. The funders interviewed also had mixed attitudes towards evidence, with some admitting candidly that gut feeling was as important as data in making funding decisions. Organisations spoke of a lack of time and expertise to collect good data on their impact. One theme that clearly emerged from the interviews was a lack of consensus on how to operationalise a model of data generation and use amongst all three groups that is of an appropriate scale in terms of the time and resources demanded, as well as being robust and rigorous. RCTs were rarely seen to be the answer. Tran’s paper recommends a number of future pathways for improving research in this space, including further elaboration of the concept of ‘lean research’ striking the balance between appropriate scale and rigour; better technical education; and changing the way evidence generation is funded. All of these are ripe for future exploration. In addition, there is little or no attention currently paid to how organisations measure negative impacts, or their incentives for doing so. This too is an area that deserves further study and the development of practical tools for the generation of objective impact measurement.

Research for Action Partnerships

Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps project

Oxford University’s Smart Handpumps project. Image credit: www.oxwater.uk

Two other seminars in the series focused on the role of research not in the generation of evidence, but in others kinds of knowledge creation, through embedded partnerships between academics and practitioners. Kate Roll, Senior Research Fellow at Saïd Business School, spoke on the Oxford-Mars Mutuality in Business project, a large multi-year research project exploring the idea of mutuality as an organising principle for business. The project is unusual in that it is carried out by an academic team in collaboration with the Mars in-house think-tank, Catalyst. The allure of the set-up is clear from the point of view of carrying out research guided by real-world priorities – there is potential for unique access to knowledge, skill and legitimacy on both sides – yet challenges are also many. In particular, spanning the research-practice boundary brings to the fore different perspectives on questions such as:

  • When is work finished? (medium-rare or well done)
  • With whom can we meet? (negotiating internal access)
  • What is a good output? (collaboration, consultancy, opportunism)
  • Who needs to be involved? (setting boundaries in joint research)

Drawing on the theory of organisational hybridity, Kate explains such collaborations as a case of striving to effectively bring together differing ‘institutional logics’: “as the degree of incompatibility between logics increases, hybrid organisations face heightened challenges” (Pache and Santos 2013). In order to realise the unique opportunities for insight and impact, researchers are obliged to adopt the character of the ‘amphibious academic’. Even if they might be happier in water, like the frog, they too can cope ably on land.

Successful examples of such collaborations are not numerous. They require connections, funding and abundant engagement and amphibious capability from all partners. Alex Fischer and Heloise Greeff, members of the Skoll Centre’s Research for Action Network, spoke about Oxford’s Smart Handpumps project, a long-running collaboration with NGOs and government. While the project began by exploring the causes and impacts of broken water pumps in rural Kenya, it has since transitioned to address how broken pumps can be fixed quickly and cost-effectively. The project is now driving technological and systems innovation to the point that it has led to the creation of a social enterprise that will service the handpumps sustainably into the future using the technical and institutional knowledge generated in earlier phases. Alex and Heloise described a ‘research-action spiral’ in which innovation and research have circled around each other in a productive dance. These impactful outcomes of the project could not have been anticipated at the beginning of the research process – a powerful argument for research led by problems and not just solutions. Often, following intuitions and blind alleys was just as important for the development of the impact of the project as any planned research pathway. This highlights the value of flexible funding and creative leadership in action-research projects. Universities are an important ingredient in this kind of innovation and research, as they provide safe spaces for the exploration of novel ideas that may not otherwise be pursued. The role of PhD students too is of significant value – unlike research assistants or employed post-doc researchers, PhD students follow their own research agendas within the wider project, generating new ideas and possibilities.

For more Research for Action from the Skoll Centre, sign up to our RfA Network Bulletin.

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The rise and challenges of social entrepreneurship

Skoll Centre Early Career Research Fellow Tanja Collavo hosted a workshop at Marmalade 2017 on the strengths and weaknesses of the social entrepreneurship sector in England… and where next.  

The State of Social Entrepreneurship in England – Strengths, Issues, and Solutions.

What is the state of social entrepreneurship in England? In the course of my DPhil research at Saïd Business School I interviewed key people at social entrepreneurship organisations, revealing a snapshot of strengths, weaknesses, worries and ambitions for the future development of the sector. At this workshop I presented some of my findings and asked participants to give their thoughts and elaborate actionable proposals around the issues most important to them.

The debate was lively! The overall agreement was that the sector is growing, vibrant, diverse, exciting, and constantly changing thanks to the very low barriers to entry. Its core strengths are its ability to break silos across sectors and organisations, and its democratic nature, encouraging bottom-up solutions to social problems and the retention of the wealth produced at the local level. Additionally, the perception is that the quality of products and services delivered by social enterprises is constantly improving and that this is a great business card to increase their market penetration both in the business-to-business and business-to-consumer markets. In this sense, many workshop participants welcomed the shift of the sector towards business and believe that more and more social enterprises should aim to become business-savvy and competitive.

But participants also agreed that there are still many key issues holding back the growth and success of the social entrepreneurship sector:

  1. No one talks about failures

There is very little learning inside the sector because media, intermediaries, social entrepreneurs and enterprises talk a lot about successes but hardly ever about failures.

  1. The passion paradox

Most ventures start because of founder’s personal experience with or passion for the problem they are trying to tackle. This has obvious positives but also can lead to a “do something now” mindset promoting easy solutions and immediate action more than the elaboration of long-term strategies. Further consequences can be the lack of professional sectoral knowledge and lower inclination towards collaboration due to high levels of personal ownership and commitment, also associated with stress and burnout.

  1. Difficulty accessing supply chains

A third issue present in the sector is the low presence of social entrepreneurial organisations in supply chains, both in the business and in the public sectors. In fact, in most cases, social ventures are too small to bid for contracts and too young to have a proven track record that would facilitate their winning supply or service contracts.

  1. Too dependent on government and poor finance

Participants described the sector as still too reliant on government and as lacking appropriate financial support matching its funding requirements and specificities. Financial support was described as particularly scarce at regional and local level, with core sector and financial intermediaries being based in London and mostly focusing on organisations and areas geographically close to them.

  1. Lack of collaboration amongst support organisations

Finally, the group agreed on one of the main findings of my research projects: the lack of collaboration among sector intermediaries. This leads to a duplication of efforts and to a degree of confusion among social entrepreneurs and enterprises about where to look for support and how to reconcile the different messages they hear from the different intermediaries they are affiliated with.

Out of this list of issues, the workshop participants picked two areas that they thought were especially relevant in order for the sector to keep on thriving: the access of social enterprises supply chains in private and public sectors, and the low collaboration among sector intermediaries.

Social entrepreneurship in supply chains

The group tackling the issue “access to supply chains” found several core causes for this issue. Some causes can be attributed to failings of social enterprises themselves:

  • a lack of transparency and metrics that would lower the perceived risk of social ventures;
  • a low understanding of tender processes;
  • and the inability of social enterprises to scale and integrate or collaborate in order to bid for big projects and commissions.

Other challenges are created by the surrounding ecosystem:

  • procurement practices and contracts that do not favour the involvement of social enterprises and small organisations in supply chains of corporations and public bodies;
  • the existing regulatory environment;
  • and the still low recognition of the value and specifies of social enterprises outside of the sector.

Proposed solutions to improve the situation relied on the involvement of social entrepreneurs and enterprises and/or in that of sector intermediaries. Social entrepreneurs and enterprises should, with the help of intermediaries, lobby both the government for changes in legislation regarding tendering processes, and private companies to convince them about the possibility to collaborate with social enterprises to enhance the sustainability and credibility/effectiveness of their CSR practices. Furthermore, on their own, social entrepreneurs and enterprises should collaborate to win contracts and present stronger evidence about their performance and competitiveness, which would reduce the perceived risk for procuring organisations. Finally, sector intermediaries and research bodies should: analyse where the Social Value Act has worked; prove the benefits of values-based supply chains; and ensure social ventures involvement in supplier network platforms like Ariba.

Increasing collaboration amongst intermediaries

The second group of participants decided instead to work on the problem of low collaboration among social entrepreneurship sector intermediaries. The origins of this situation can be found in the presence in the sector of multiple umbrella bodies and intermediaries that publicly state that they are cooperating and collaborating with one another but in reality are very territorial and not interested in what other intermediaries do because “they occupy a separate niche in the sector”. In addition, many intermediaries have very specific views and beliefs about the definition of social entrepreneurship, about what the sector should look like, or about its role in society. This makes it difficult for them to really collaborate beyond sporadic cooperation for specific projects and events.

In this case, the proposed solution was to start from existing successful platforms involving several intermediaries (such as the Social Economy Alliance) and create a “network of networks”. This would have shared ownership and governance, would avoid exclusive definitions, and would initiate collaborations among different organisations around specific projects, such as “improving the access to supply chains for organisations in the social economy”. Cooperation on specific projects could be a starting point to create trust and a mutual understanding. At the same time, this “network of networks” should map out all the different intermediaries present in the sector and develop an online list differentiating organisations according to their core competences and easily accessible for organisations interested in obtaining support from the ecosystem. The creation of such a database would simplify the research process for individuals and organisations in need of help and would create the opportunity for intermediaries to understand where their respective strengths are and, thus, for sharing best practices and outsourcing to each other non-core activities.

What’s next?

The meeting finished with some networking and the hope that these solutions could lead to some concrete initiatives in the sector as well as to other opportunities to meet and discuss also the other issues present in the sector and ways to solve them in a collaborative way. Is anyone there up for the challenge? From my side, the door is open to anyone willing to know more or to jointly organise something along these lines to help the social entrepreneurship sector as well as other parts of the social economy grow and thrive even more.

Want to learn more about the interconnected networks within social entrepreneurship and social enterprise? Come along to Tanja’s talk ‘Networks in social entrepreneurship – how to support the sector while mobilising it‘ on Wednesday 17 May, at the Saïd Business School, Oxford.

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Uniting theory and practice in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem

Author: Andrea Warriner

My Oxford is the Oxford of Saïd Business School, and within that, it is the busy hub of social entrepreneurship that is the Skoll Centre. Our programme delivery team and the entrepreneurial individuals we champion and work with are heavily biased towards execution and have a tendency to hurtle towards action. A full hour planning meeting for a new programme would be a long one for us. A day spent conducting research before moving into designing a new initiative is rare.

Thankfully, our Centre exists in the heart of a different Oxford – an Oxford which stretches between our Park End Street, down to Magdalen Bridge, and up to Summertown, and is home to those who prize evidence above all else. This Oxford is made up of people who might find the idea of launching headfirst into implementing a new solution without understanding the problem as well as they possibly can quite ludicrous.

So, last week, the week of the Skoll World Forum, when a good proportion of the global social entrepreneurship ecosystem poured into our ancient city, we conducted an experiment. Early on a Thursday morning, we deliberately gathered 30 ‘practitioners’ and 30 researchers interested in social impact, to consider how we bridge the gap between research and action to create better social and environmental outcomes, and to hear from those who are doing this already.

Our own Julian Cottee provoked us by outlining why the Skoll Centre thinks these unlikely bedfellows need to cosy up. He put forward that researchers can help us to better understand social and environmental problems, as well as the efficacy of existing solutions. He noted that research can support the innovation that needs to happen in the gap between the problem and existing solutions, and can assess the impact of social innovation, aiding better decision-making and allocation of resources going forward. Researchers also may have the perspective to guide which initiatives should be replicated across geographies and disciplines. Finally, they can consider the structural frameworks and power dynamics which underpin this social entrepreneurship ecosystem, and make the criticisms that those of us who are too close to the action are ill-positioned to make.

Over breakfast, we heard rapid fire pitches from those who are already in long-term research/practice relationships – like Muhammad Meki, an Oxford development economist who is designing a randomised control trial to assess the effectiveness of microfinance for micro-entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya. The project is part of Mars Inc’s Mutuality in Business project, based here at Oxford Saïd.

What’s next?

The energy in the room was tangible, and the Skoll Centre will follow up to understand if the group found this first experiment useful, and what connections formed. We are also available to entrepreneurs/practitioners who want to tap into the Oxford research community in order to accelerate the impact of their work.  We’ll have a thought leadership series on the role of academic research in the social entrepreneurship ecosystem coming out later this year, and look forward to receiving contributions to that from those who helped shape this early conversation.

Finally, we are excited to live out our belief in the importance of research as an informant and shaper of social innovation, with the expansion of The Global Challenge to institutions across the world in 2017. The Challenge is a Skoll Centre founded competition that requires students to display a deep understanding of a chosen problem and its existing solutions, rather than jumping to developing a business plan. We’ve been amazed at the ‘ecosystem maps’ that are resulting from this Challenge, and invite the public to join us to see the outputs at The Global Challenge final, here in Oxford on 1 May.

As Daniela Papi-Thornton, founder of The Global Challenge and author of Tackling Heropreneurship, has succinctly put it – action without knowledge is foolishness, and knowledge without action is selfishness. It is the aim of our Research for Action initiative to help develop a cadre of wise and selfless partnerships in the pursuit of powerful impact.

Sign up to the Skoll Centre’s thought leadership newsletter, which highlights the best social/environmental impact research coming out of the University of Oxford.

If you’re interested in being added to a Google Group mailing list for individuals who want to forge partnerships between practice and research, drop us an email.