Skoll World Forum/Flickr
Pamela Hartigan addresses the Closing Plenary at the New Theatre

Social entrepreneurship is the way to change the world, says Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Oxford.

It takes a strong will to see opportunities in the world’s current financial crises, but Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, part of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, is not one to shy away from her convictions. For her, troubled times are exactly the moment for true social entrepreneurs to step in and make a difference.

“Entrepreneurialism is about systemic change,” she says, “combining things in new ways to come up with completely new ways of thinking. This is something true entrepreneurs are very good at.” The trouble is, they are thin on the ground.

“There’s a big difference between social enterprise and social entrepreneurship,” she says. “There are many people working in social enterprises and they are very well meaning but they don’t practise social entrepreneurialism. They usually lack innovation and they don’t have social change as their primary purpose, which means they are assuaging the symptoms rather than tackling the root cause.”

By contrast, social entrepreneurs are a special breed. “They have to be incredibly stubborn,” she says, “obnoxious even, to keep on doing what they are doing. And they have to be able to fail and pull themselves up again, again and again. Few people have those very particular qualities – thank God, or the world would be a crazy place.”

Hartigan is fast speaker, someone for whom the world’s problems are urgent and need addressing now. Under her directorship, Skoll has pioneered academic research into how social entrepreneurialism can create new, fairer ways of doing business. It runs one of the few MBA programmes in the world to focus on the power of social entrepreneurialism to solve global issues.

She admits that there are limits to what the centre can do, partly because it’s hard to get real entrepreneurs into the classroom. “Entrepreneurs don’t do MBAs,” she says, laughing. “They drop out of school. No one can teach entrepreneurship. What we can do is give entrepreneurs tools to be better businesspeople,” she says, “and, most importantly, to be better businesspeople whose primary goal is to solve global issues.”

Hartigan is complimentary about the way the UK government has encouraged social entrepreneurship, through schemes such as the launch of Social Impact Bonds, which reward investment in social change. “Government has a huge role to play in creating the facilitating policies that promote entrepreneurial drive and activity,” she says.

The challenge though is to ensure that charities and social enterprises don’t just help the system to be effective, but also challenge it, innovating and creating new approaches to entrenched problems. This can drive change not just within the UK (for example Frameworks 4 Change’s work in healthcare or the pioneering High Winds wind farm cooperative) but also build on UK expertise to drive change around the world (with organisations like the British Council).

Community-minded businesses are nothing new, but, for her, policies such as corporate social responsibility are missing the point, as they make fixing the world’s problems a side issue. In Hartigan’s eyes, a truly socially entrepreneurial company will have social change as its top priority.

“That objective can’t just be a side product of what you do,” she says. “Big pharma can come up with a cure for cancer but curing cancer is not their first priority. That’s returning value to shareholders. Making a difference has to be at the top of what you do all the time and those profits need go straight back into that social goal, in that case, say, making your drug affordable. That’s what distinguishes a socially entrepreneurial business from a well-meaning one.”

But what happens when money is tight? She pauses. “It’s interesting, because then you have a challenge,” she says. “The temptation is to say, ‘Chuck the social thing, focus on the money,’ and sometimes you have to do that to survive. Would you rather be dead or be able to carry out your social mission? But how do we do that? That’s something that is still at the research stage. B Corporations are interesting, the way they set out to balance money with a social impact. But we have a long way to go.”

One place that research could lead is to a rethinking about some of the very basics of modern capitalism, a system she sees as crying out for reform. “People are dissatisfied with they way capital markets are set up,” she says. “They are credited with massive problems: pollution, disempowerment, inequality. Plus, we have a very short-term culture at the moment based on plain old greed. I mean, how much profit do you need? We have gone crazy, with the proliferation of hedge funds, things like that.”

Now, she says, we have an opportunity to think again. “This is very political. This is about how to face up to these corporate interests. No one is looking out for the people who feel badly done by. We’re here to challenge that.”

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