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Blog: How can Universities help develop the Social Entrepreneurs of the Future?

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  • Picture of Chris Durkin FRSA
    Chris Durkin FRSA
  • Creative economy

Chris Durkin, RSA Fellow, reflects on the University of Northampton’s approach in the development of social entrepreneurs and highlights one of his student’s attempts to scale her idea using one of the new forms of social investment.

The University of Northampton has been involved in supporting the social entrepreneurs of the future since 2010 when it put social enterprise at the centre of its strategy. That strategy that has developed considerably over the years, moving away from a focus on an organisational construct to a more nuanced focus on social entrepreneurship as a process, and now towards a current focus on social innovation and social impact. This, perhaps is part of a wider debate about entrepreneurship education - what is it, can it be taught and what exactly is the role of a University?  If you’re interested RSA Fellows will be meeting in Peterborough for an RSA Engage to discuss one of the RSA’s key themes – Economy, Enterprise and Manufacture.  Please join us to shape the conversation.

Universities can and should be creative spaces where people can come together to develop ideas, but so often students and staff focus almost exclusively on their subject disciplines. It can also teach entrepreneurship as part of a broader business education, but again this may, I feel, be rather stilted with the majority of curriculum traditional business studies. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is a use for business education in this sphere but the central question has to be how do we allow students to use their creativity and own entrepreneurial skills to develop their ideas?

We have tried a number of approaches. First, like many Universities we have held competitions to find and support entrepreneurial talent; competitions that offer cash prizes and support (interestingly it is the support that has proved the most useful aspect for the students).  It was through this sort of competition that we discovered Suzi Rees, a very charismatic student social entrepreneur who set up idid adventure which began by providing adventure sports events for deaf and disabled young adults. This has developed through a number of different stages and is now looking to expand further using crowdfunding to build their own climbing wall in Corby, Northamptonshire. For more information and to support, please visit www.crowdfunder.co.uk/corby-climbing-centre

Universities, in my view, can provide a safe place for young people to develop their ideas, supported through such things as enterprise clubs. We can, albeit, only go so far and the issue of how small social entrepreneurs expand their business is a major problem given that much of the social investment market focuses on larger enterprises.   As we know RSA Fellows have also successfully used the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter to gain support to bring forward new ideas and concepts that are not yet ready for investment, however this model is time heavy and requires a large volume of social capital.  What other models are out there to support new ideas to grow? The growth of the micro-business highlighted by the RSA’s Ben Dellot raises a number of important questions to be tackled.

Other ways we are looking to develop people’s talent and creativity is a wider project of incorporating social innovation throughout the curriculum. This has become very much linked to a wider debate about employability and components of such an approach have, at its core, transformational learning, critical reflection and place. An example of this is illustrated by our social venture builder programme which aims to develop the sustainable social ventures of the future through an innovative curriculum that is, in part, delivered through open space learning, which is co- designed learning; focusing on the personal needs of students supported by virtual learning, business support and mentoring.

If you are interested in hearing more about our approach, please get in touch.

Chris Durkin FRSA

Associate Professor

Northampton Institute of Urban Affairs

Email: [email protected]

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