Field observation: Testing London waters

February 8, 2015

I just returned from a fantastic week with Unltd and the Global Social Entrepreneurship Network – GSEN – in London. I met a whole lot of fellow Social Venturers passionate about supporting social entrepreneurs one way or the other –  pretty exhausted but absolutely thrilled. Time for a little recap.

The Big Social

Monday and Tuesday I attended #TheBigSocial, hosted and run by Unltd. It was a two-day event during which supporters of social entrepreneurs – mainly from the UK – came together to discuss current issues of the field, from peer support and scaling to working with corporates and universities, and so on. For some impressions, check out the Twitter stream #TheBigSocial – the 6th most trending hashtag on Twitter in the UK during those 2 days.

Global Social Entrepreneurship Network

Wednesday through Friday were dedicated to the GSEN Learning Week directed towards its 48 members. After a long-ish Q&A session with Unltd’s CEO Cliff Prior, network members gave insights into their work. I took the opportunity to grab Daniel Nowack from Yunus Social Business and Julian Wolfson from Acumen to run my first Social Venturer test interviews (Spotlights forthcoming!). I was excited to finally be speaking on Social Venturer terms while I frantically took notes (note to self – must start recording interviews) and tried to suppress the occasional gasp when hearing about their career and personal developments. The second   and third day of the Learning week were very much similar to each other in that we addressed different topics that were of different relevance to different members.

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Social Entrepreneurship in post-/conflict zones

In the meantime, I met up with Richard Catherall of Katarsis Ventures. Richard works – amongst many other things – with social entrepreneurs in conflict and post-conflict zones which – I will admit – I hadn’t given much thought until meeting him. I have worked with social entrepreneurs in Pakistan, Yemen, Ukraine and Honduras. In the back of my mind I always knew they had more challenges to struggle with, but during my conversation with Richard I gained a better grasp of the deeper systemic challenges to social entrepreneurship in conflict zones. Challenges that require a different type of support. Richard confirmed an observation I had made myself over the past years: social ventures in fragile environments are more creative and much more resilient than the ones working in more developed countries. “In these regions, conflict has fostered people’s self-determination. For some (social) entrepreneurs, it has shifted their vision of who they are; their gritty way of life has honed them to become their own person. There is lots to go for!”

Social entrepreneurs in conflict-zones don’t have a sector of social enterprise support. Click To Tweet

This won’t come as a surprise: Social ventures in post-/conflict zones develop different kinds of solutions, which we like to call innovative. I believe – and hope to test this hypothesis some day – that they have a different understanding of the issue’s root cause (cultural understanding, personal experience of the need etc.), and work with different resource allocations available to them in these zones. As compared to social entrepreneurs I have worked with in more developed countries, the ones Richard and I were talking about face different institutional contexts and deal with issues of different severity. “These social entrepreneurs don’t have a whole sector of social enterprise support to turn to. They find the support they need when they need it in their local environment. They help each other out and when they come across a support organization they expect it to be sustainable and not dependent on import or limited funding.” I wonder how local incubators/accelerators operate in these contexts and can make use of these strong local ties. How are their programs different from the ones I have met in Europe and the US so far?

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I learned three things this week:

  1. Big groups need proper facilitation. Throughout the week I couldn’t help but feel that precious energy was lost due to sessions that ran too long and had no specific objective.
  2. The conversation about Social Venturers’ personal backgrounds are not only inspiring but tend to take up most of the interview time. It is entirely possible that I am the only person who is inspired by the curricula vitae of other Social Venturers, but just in case I am not: I am keeping and highlighting this as one stand-alone aspect of Social Venturers.
  3. I need to sit down and develop a concrete concept for Social Venturers. These test interviews were really helpful in trying myself out as an interviewer and testing the questions in real-life situations, but I need to become more structured and take a stronger lead during these conversations. Hopefully I can follow up with these four to fill some gaps once I have set up the questionnaire accordingly.

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