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The social enterprise greenhouse

30 October 2017

The article at a glance

When it comes to starting social enterprises, Paul Tracey and Neil Stott “would love to see a thousand flowers bloom”. But doing …

When it comes to starting social enterprises, Paul Tracey and Neil Stott “would love to see a thousand flowers bloom”. But doing good for society isn’t as straightforward as it sounds and even the best ideas can fail. Their research aims to understand the elements that are needed to help social ventures thrive.

Pink roses in a Dutch greenhouse

Oliver Armitage wants to make bionic limbs effective and affordable for amputees everywhere. Kate Nation wants to help young women gain confidence and self-esteem through work. Riaz Moola wants to tackle the educational inequalities he saw growing up in Africa by offering programming tuition online.

Oliver, Kate and Riaz are part of a movement of entrepreneurs that’s been growing rapidly in the UK since the mid-1990s. United by a passion for addressing deep-rooted societal problems, they aren’t looking to solve them with cash, instead they want to have a positive impact through business and enterprise.

Social enterprises like the organisations that each of them runs (Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems, Turtledove and Hyperion Development) are designed to improve people’s lives. Social enterprises also create goods, services and jobs, and invest in local communities. According to the UK’s Department for International Trade, social enterprises contribute £55 billion to the economy through jobs, goods, services and investing in local communities; no wonder it’s been said that “when a social enterprise profits, society profits”.

Paul Tracey & Neil Stott
Paul Tracey & Neil Stott

But, say Paul Tracey and Neil Stott, ensuring a social enterprise thrives is not always straightforward. “Doing good has increasingly been seen by government and others as the new game in town – and investment and policies, including those launched by the UK government’s ‘Big Society’ in 2010, have swiftly followed,” says Tracey, Professor of Innovation and Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“Social investment in the UK is growing by 30 per cent, and a report last year suggested the UK is leading the way globally in effective policy around social enterprise and social investment.”

“This is of course excellent,” says Stott, who with Tracey co-directs Cambridge’s Centre for Social Innovation. “But we felt that there were a few problems – that the rhetoric of success and the reality were a long way apart. Social enterprises are often started with great intentions but a lack of understanding about what’s needed to make them sustainable. Too many great ideas wither and die. Everyone – policy makers, academics, practitioners – think it’s a good thing per se. We wanted to lift up the stones and see what’s underneath.

“Even though we’d like to see a thousand flowers bloom – lots of people being social entrepreneurs – if you want to make change in the world, having this passion is not enough,” adds Stott. “The challenges can be both immense and unique to that particular social venture.”

Stott cites Keystone, a social enterprise he ran in a part of the UK that has experienced a significant influx of migrants. Keystone was one of the organisations in the area that offered a dedicated program of support. What the organisers didn’t expect was that parts of the established local population, many of whom also benefitted from Keystone’s activities, would ultimately stigmatise them.

In fact there was a positive outcome, he says, in that this withdrawal of support was compensated for by increased support from others who saw the organisation as representing a set of values they wanted to uphold.

Tracey and Stott realised that businesses could learn much from understanding both the failures and the successes of others, and so an integral part of the Centre for Social Innovation’s work now revolves around an ‘incubator’ – Cambridge Social Ventures – which supports social entrepreneurs to start and grow a social venture.

Initially funded with £1m from the government, Cambridge Social Ventures, a partnership between Cambridge Judge Business School, Allia, Foundation East and Keystone Development Trust, and has since become embedded in Cambridge Judge Business School. Nearly 100 early-stage and well-established social entrepreneurs – including Oliver, Kate and Riaz – have now come through a 12-month mentoring and support system, with a further 500 helped through weekend programmes.

“We’re not looking for entrepreneurs who happen to create benefit, as good as that is,” says Tracey. “We’re looking for people who are passionate about social change and are designing their venture for that purpose.

“We’re helping them with business advice, and we’re also studying them. We want to get a sense of motivation, ideas and practices, how social objectives are traded off with business objectives – and how all of this affects the way a social venture develops.”

They describe it as a greenhouse – where the ‘doing’ of social enterprise feeds research in the Centre and teaching on a new Masters programme, which in turn is training future social innovators. “Our unofficial strapline is Think Teach Do,” says Stott.

“Once people have identified as a social entrepreneur and are suddenly in a room with others, they learn and they forge partnerships,” says Belinda Bell, Programme Director of Cambridge Social Ventures.

One example is Oliver Armitage and his team at Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems working with John Willis and his charity, Power2Inspire, which encourages people of all ages and abilities to take up sport together.

Cambridge Bio-Augmentation Systems aims to make the most advanced bionic technology affordable and effective for any who need it. After meeting Willis, who was born without fully formed arms or legs, Armitage and colleagues designed four different devices to attach to a prosthetic socket that would help him kayak, row, play archery and tennis as part of his successful challenge to take part in 34 Olympic and Paralympic sports. The designs for the prostheses are now freely available to download and print in 3D.

This is ‘extrapreneurship’ in action, say Tracey and Stott – the creation of novel solutions by partnerships that come about through support mechanisms like Cambridge Social Ventures. They came up with this term when they realised that a new framework was needed to describe how social ventures work in practice. While ‘extrapreneurship’ is the building of support networks like the incubator, ‘entrepreneurship’ is the creating and growing a venture, and ‘intrapreneurship’ is the embedding of social objectives in the activities of established companies.

“There are many different approaches that individuals and organisations can take when addressing social problems, and these may have relatively little in common with each other,” says Tracey. “The result is researchers sometimes talk past each other and end up comparing apples with pears, which is a barrier to knowledge creation.”

Their research has also suggested that social entrepreneurship in isolation is not enough: “If you want to make real change you have to involve the corporate sector and the public sector in business,” explains Tracey. “The businesses that fail quickly are frequently operating at a small scale, in some of the most challenging areas of the country – places where regular businesses don’t flourish because people don’t have that much disposable income. Working with corporate and business sectors can provide security and sustainability.”

“We’re excited because there’s a real zeitgeist – right place, right time,” adds Stott. “Young people are as concerned today about making a difference as they are with making money. Social enterprises are taking off and we want to help them flourish.”

This article originally appeared on the University of Cambridge website.

This article was published on

30 October 2017.