Going Back To School To Change The World: The School For Social Entrepreneurs


Social entrepreneurship is a burgeoning sector with visionary and optimistic yet practical and pragmatic individuals leading the way to solve some of society’s most pressing issues.

Just a few decades ago, what we now know and easily recognize as social entrepreneurship was more ambiguous. In fact, there wasn’t even a name for it.

But now social entrepreneurship and innovation is in vogue, and an ever-growing number of people want to get in on the action. To support the needs of budding social entrepreneurs, an educational foundation has begun to evolve and one such initiative is that of the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE).

Originally founded in 1995 in the United Kingdom, the SSE has since expanded its programs all across the UK, Australia, and now – you guessed it! – Canada. The School for Social Entrepreneurs – Ontario (SSE-O) is delivering its inaugural fellowship program this fall.

With a unique approach to education that values practitioner-led and action-based experience, SSE-O’s fellowship is a nine-month program dedicated entirely to developing social entrepreneurs’ ideas and ventures.

I spoke with SSE-O’s Director Marjorie Victor Brans to learn about this fascinating new initiative.

Why do social entrepreneurs need a separate school independent of what already exists in the formal educational system?

Marjorie: There are a lot of classes on social entrepreneurship and I think those programs are wonderful because they are developing greater interest in the field and people are learning a lot about social entrepreneurship from different angles. What SSE is providing that is so rare is the chance to learn about social entrepreneurship through action.

At the SSE, you’re not taking traditional courses. There are no grades, tests, or an exam at the end. This is very different. People are coming to the program with an idea of a venture that they want to launch. They’re working on launching this venture and they’re coming back to class to talk about what they’re doing. It’s kind of like a Weight Watchers group. You’re trying to lose weight and you’re not going to do that by talking about the theory of losing weight. At the end of the week you count your calories and you go back to your Weight Watchers group and you report what happened. “I gave into the ice cream this weekend, I need help getting back on the wagon!” It’s very similar with the SSE model.

There’s no educational requirement to become a student. Why is that?

Marjorie: We’ve found that many great social entrepreneurs didn’t necessarily enjoy or complete school, and we don’t want academic qualifications to be a barrier. Now there are going to be people who are straight A students and who have tons of degrees who will come to the school, but we also want to reach people who may not have that. We just don’t find that there needs to be academic qualifications in order to be successful. They’re helpful, but they’re not required.

What are some specific skills that you’ll be working with the students to hone throughout the program?

Marjorie: There are the obvious ones, which are the hard skills of how to set up the financing and the legal structure…all those technical skills that are obviously critical and essential. But what SSE really does well is working to hone entrepreneurs’ soft skills. Those are ultimately harder to measure and it’s not really something you can develop by reading a book.

One thing we’ve seen with many entrepreneurs is that they fail not because they lack the hard skills, but because they lack the soft skills. And probably the main problem is that they get discouraged. Social entrepreneurs are setting out to do pretty audacious things. People are saying, “Why are you doing that? Who gave you the right to tackle that issue?” People can get discouraged and give up. What the School for Social Entrepreneurs does is provide a community of support, especially at the most critical stages in the early period when people are much more likely to be nay-saying the effort.

You’re working with 19 other entrepreneurs and you’re egging each other to keep going. Also, all the class sessions are led by practitioners who know how difficult it is to stay the course. They model the confidence, legitimacy and persistence that a social entrepreneur needs to succeed.

What other resources are there for young social entrepreneurs who really want to dip their toes in this field?

Marjorie: There are lots of resources now especially since the interest in the field is growing a lot. There is the MaRS Entrepreneurship Toolkit online. The Centre for Social Innovation provide a ton of resources and bring in speakers constantly. There’s a new site that’s not very well known yet but useful for providing resources for the different stages of your social venture: SOJO.

If you’re someone who doesn’t yet have an idea for a social venture but want to get involved in this field, what should you do?

Marjorie: First, it’s very important to look into your soul and think about what really gets you burned up. Ask yourself, “What motivates me?” It could be something like, “I see my neighbour down the street isn’t able to access basic resources,” or “I just can’t stand that Canada hasn’t done enough for the environment,” or whatever the issue may be. You really need to identify what’s burning in your soul.

Go to networking events, attend lectures on social entrepreneurship…there are tons going on! Read news magazines and articles online and talk to people by doing informational interviews. It’s also really important to get your feet wet by volunteering or interning in organizations in this sector. It’s even better if you can actually work at one of these places.

The fire has to be fed by some kind of experience and it has to be meaningful experience. And that’s not going to happen just by sitting around on your sofa thinking about the problem.

The School for Social Entrepreneurs is accepting applications until August 1st – apply here.

Photo credit: I will change the world by Hauptillusionator on Flickr
About the author

Justine Abigail Yu is a communications professional by day and a freelance writer by night. Graduating from the University of Toronto specializing in Political Science and Sociology, her heart lies in the development sector where she has worked with organizations operating in North America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. You can easily lure her in with talk of international development, human rights, emerging technologies, travel, and yes, Mad Men. Or a slice of cheesecake. Read her blog here or follow her on Twitter @justineabigail.