Celebrating social entrepreneurship on and off campus: Sheffield Social Enterprise City

Sheffield has been awarded Social Enterprise Place status by Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) — the national membership organisation for social enterprises in the UK. This is a fantastic achievement for the city as the award recognises hotspots of social entrepreneurship activity: from innovative social enterprises addressing societal challenges to research about and support for social entrepreneurship, while also bringing together the local community to promote, raise awareness, and build the markets for social enterprise at a local and national level.

The award is a testament to the positive impact of social enterprises in the city and the collaborative work between the Sheffield Social Enterprise Network (leading the application), both universities, Sheffield City Council, The Keyfund, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, Business Sheffield, Social Enterprise Exchange, the LEP Board, and local social enterprises, such as ZEST and SOAR Build, to apply for Social Enterprise Place status.

Ambitions for the future

However, the award is not just a celebration of the work so far, but an ambition to build on the excellent cross-sectoral work in the city to strengthen and support the social entrepreneurship community in Sheffield. An ambition and commitment to learn with and from each other, catalyse more innovative solutions, generate more jobs, enhance social inclusion and community cohesion, and see social enterprises going mainstream as the new norm for business.

Recognising the thriving social entrepreneurship community in Sheffield is also a good prompt to reflect on the role of the University of Sheffield as a civic and research university in this community and the opportunities for the future. Over the past five years I have had the opportunity and privilege to be a part of and to observe the multiple ways through which our research, public engagement activities, and learning and teaching contribute to the thriving social entrepreneurship community in Sheffield. While my experience and observations have been primarily in the context of Sheffield University Management School and University of Sheffield Enterprise, I am aware that there are many colleagues and students in other departments and faculties who are passionate about social entrepreneurship and actively engaged in the community.

The university supports the social entrepreneurship community in several direct ways. Collaborative research and co-creation with social enterprises and social entrepreneurship support organisations has generated new insights into who the social entrepreneurs are, the challenges social enterprises face and the ways they maintain their dual (and triple) missions. For example, Social Inclusion Works, a collaborative initiative I launched with University of Sheffield Enterprise and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce last year brought together social enterprises and researchers to share challenges, learn from each other, and develop solutions through new research.

Making ideas happen

Additionally, there are opportunities for social entrepreneurs to access co-working space, talent, one-to-one support, learning and development initiatives, and specialised events that can support them with developing and running their social enterprises. For example, my own research-based module on social entrepreneurship as well as Making Ideas Happen at the University of Sheffield Enterprise both connect local social enterprises with talented, curious, and passionate young people who apply their skills, creativity, and research-based insights to address specific challenges for these social enterprises.

The next generation of social entrepreneurs

From our research and work with social enterprises and social entrepreneurship support organisations, we know that social entrepreneurship is challenging. From balancing financial and social demands, to finding, training, and retaining the right talent, to measuring social impact, to changing the public perception of social enterprises as not being social enough nor business enough, social entrepreneurs and employees of social enterprises face unique challenges. Through bespoke modules and community initiatives as well as through embedding social entrepreneurship in different programmes, we aim to inspire and train the next generation of social entrepreneurs by equipping them with core changemaker skills and research-led insights. For example, in collaboration with Business in the Community, Irwin Mitchell, SIG, Carillion, DLA Piper, Veolia, and Lloyds Banking Group, three years ago I launched the Speak Out Initiative. The initiative supports young people from diverse local schools, such as Chaucer, Fir Vale, Parkwood, Sheffield Park Academy, Sheffield Springs Academy, and Yewlands, to develop projects for positive social change in their communities. The young people have access to mentors and workshops to develop core changemaker skills, such as identifying and scoping community problems, collaborative problem solving and decision making, creativity, conducting research, and using research insights for decision making.

Beyond working directly with young people on and off campus to inspire future social entrepreneurs, we also work with educators across the country to share best practice around social entrepreneurship education. This includes developing safe environments that connect educators to share best practice, reflect, learn from social entrepreneurs, and experiment to inspire and enable social entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds through Enterprise Educators Best Practice Events.

While in some ways our research, public engagement activities, and learning and teaching have contributed to the thriving social entrepreneurship community in Sheffield, we have also tremendously benefited from the work and goodwill of the social entrepreneurship community. Social entrepreneurs, employees of social ventures, and those in support organisations have been incredibly generous with their time and patience in participating in our research and often answering questions that seemed silly and obvious. They have been incredibly generous with their time and patience in supporting our students with projects, talks, bespoke advice, connections, and employment opportunities that make a difference to the experiences and futures of our students every day.

Looking forward, I hope these initiatives continue and new innovative initiatives are developed to collaborate with, learn with, and learn from more social entrepreneurs, social enterprise, and support organisations. I hope that we create new opportunities for more young people to access inspiring and research-based social entrepreneurship learning and development that enables them to work directly with social enterprises. I hope that we work toward social entrepreneurship becoming the norm on our campus.

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