Musings of a Systems Entrepreneur

Musings of a Systems Entrepreneur

This article was written by Chris Blues, Programme Manager for Social Ventures, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and with contributions from Skoll Venture Award awardees James Steere, Kate Thiers, Stephen Honan, James Thorogood, and Alex Royea.


At the Skoll Centre, we believe social ventures can accelerate positive systems change and tackle the world’s most urgent challenges.

In recent months, we spoke with social entrepreneurs that won the Skoll Venture Award. Since 2012, we invested £250k in 15 social ventures and they have gone on to raise $17.6 million in investment, with one big acquisition, and the ventures have directly impacted a quarter of a million lives. You can learn more about the impact of Skoll Venture Award in our brand new Impact Report

Through our analysis we hoped to understand the impact of providing early-stage grant investment to social ventures and whether the award catalyses high-potential ventures to overcome the pioneer gap, demonstrate traction, and enable access to mainstream impact investment. 

Whilst seeking to understand the impact of the Skoll Venture Award, we also took the opportunity to ask a pertinent question to our awardees -


What do you feel are the key attributes of a systems entrepreneur?

This is what they shared with us:


Tip 1: Perspective is everything.
An entrepreneur’s perspective fundamentally frames how they see the system and the perception of risks and opportunities in that system. Understanding your perspective, holding your assumptions lightly and building a reflective practice (e.g. constantly validating your assumptions through lean start-up methodology) are essential to acting effectively as a systems entrepreneur. 

“I can’t escape that fact that my thinking is of a privileged white guy…the fact is, no matter how hard I try, I cannot fully empathise with a low income community in a small town in South Africa. I can academically look at that and expose myself to it for a period of time, but I still underestimate how little we understand of those contexts and that’s a risk for social entrepreneurship.”
James Steere, iDrop, SVA 2016


Tip 2: Dance with the aperture of your solutions space.
As the venture grows, you should explore whether the solution (i.e. your product or service) is too narrow to effect change in the system. Experimenting and varying the parameters of your solution space may increase your understanding of how the venture interacts with the system, understanding of stakeholder needs and product-market fit.

“Having an eye towards that type of system [we work in] was really helpful for us to gain an appreciation for the type of intervention to get low income farmers to be competitive in the commercial realm. That changed our aperture of what mission success looked like.”
Stephen Honan, Odyssey Sensors, SVA 2013

“We felt like we should solve the general systemic problem rather than charging in with our intervention in hand...we were reminded, especially when it comes to things like money and financial services, there is a huge diversity of needs.”
James Thorogood, Boresha Tech, SVA 2018


Tip 3: Get curious about your unintended consequence.
Every social venture has unintended positive and negative consequences, it an innate characteristic of acting in a system. In addition, all ventures are nested within and interact with other larger systems. Ventures tend to set operational boundaries to align with their immediate sphere of direct influence, creating a false view of working within closed system. Being curious, accountable and mitigating against your unintended negative consequences are attributes of a systems entrepreneur. 

“It is easier to manage unintended consequences in a closed system really well, but you are putting the blinders on the awareness of the larger ecosystem. There is an effect…and if that is a thoroughly externalised cost, that is displaced on the wider community.”
Stephen Honan, Odyssey Sensors, SVA 2013


Tip 4: Leverage intersectionality.
Embracing a holistic approach could be the key to maximising your impact. Orientating your solution to truly leverage the intersectionality across social and environmental outcomes could super charge your impact and open new resources, partnerships and possibilities. 

“How do we find the intersectionality of things that need mental health applied to it? Taking care of one’s mental health is actually part of the journey to achieve many goals, not just the goals in itself of being more mentally healthy…There is now more acceptance of the fact that mental health is everywhere, and mental health is everything, but it is very new and usually seen as a siloed thing.”
Alex Royea, Wazi, SVA 2020


Tip 5: It’s all about power.
Are you reinforcing unequal power asymmetries? Or are you pushing against power structures? Exploring how power is created, maintained, and reallocated within your system will help you understand how your venture challenges or reinforces power dynamics and most importantly – whether you are okay with this. 

“I reckon social entrepreneurship is even tougher, because there are no conventional rules, you are trying to break entrenched patterns, capital, concentrations and markets. There are layers upon layers of breaking into it and that makes social entrepreneurship even tougher.”
Kate & James Steere, iDrop, SVA 2016


In conclusion, we are starting to understand that systems entrepreneurship is not binary. It is not a question of whether ‘you are’ or ‘you are not’ a systems entrepreneur. It is an iterative mindset that embraces humility and a lifelong learning process. Perhaps every entrepreneur is a systems entrepreneur – many of us just do not know it yet. 

“As the venture grows, you should explore whether the solution is too narrow to effect change in the system. Experimenting and varying the parameters may increase your understanding of how the venture interacts with the system.”