Learning to be a social entrepreneur


postitsIn the last few years in Europe social entrepreneurship has became more and more of a trend. It is as if to become a social entrepreneur would be the magic solution to the lack of employment and job opportunities that affects European society and especially young people today. Very close to the idea of ‘self-made man/woman’, but with the added value that social entrepreneurship brings a desirable social impact. In this sense social entrepreneurs become economically independent and contribute to solve a social need in their community.

Despite the fact the context starts to be more friendly and open to this approach to entrepreneurship, with funds available from EU programmes and other sort of national private and public grant schemes, a big burden is put onto the shoulders of young people, who have been heavily affected by the crisis, to follow this pathway in order to achieve economic independence.

Nothing wrong with this, I am myself following this pathway (and I can ensure it is not an easy one, though it is certainly rewarding and engaging), but I am afraid that too much weight is put onto individual agency without considering contextual and systemic factors and dynamics. The risk is that failure, whenever it happens, will be attributed to those who entailed this pathway, discouraging reflection on other factors and dynamics that affect social enterprise creation and development. Not to mention that young people are invested of a big responsibility to sort out a problem, that of youth unemployment, that to a great extent requires governmental intervention, public-private partnerships and investment from the public sector.

This focus on the individual has other sort of outcomes, for instance the proliferation of trainings and all sort of learning opportunities for young people on the subject of social entrepreneurship. I personally find this quite relevant and I have been involved as a trainer in various courses on the subject. From this experience I have some reflections I would like to share, specifically regarding the role of youth organisations and youth work (see definition below*) in social entrepreneurship education.

To start with, it is important to highlight the fact that different actors, namely universities and other private and public organisations and institutions, start to deliver social entrepreneurship training. Whilst formal education contexts still offer courses with an accent on knowledge and information, there are some private institutions already using interactive learning methodologies that enable a bigger competence based component in learning. For instance the Institute of Social Entrepreneurship in Portugal has a very interesting and alternative approach towards learning competences for social entrepreneurship.

In this context it is reasonable to ask what role youth work has to play in the field of social entrepreneurship learning. It is obviously not worth to consider substituting institutions as those referred above, as youth workers and youth trainers lack of expertise and resources on such a specific field. Therefore it should play a complementary role, coherent with youth work own expertise and capacity, as well as with its values and tradition.

One of the strengths of youth work is indeed the educational approach it uses, normally referred to as non-formal education. This approach is characterised by being highly interactive, learner centred and holistic, making it a relevant context to learn some of the very important skills and competences required to become a social entrepreneur.

Entrepreneurship competence is broadly conceived as ‘the capacity to turn ideas into action’, requiring therefore creativity, initiative, responsibility, decision-making, leadership, project management, among other skills and attitudes. Interactive learning contexts such as the one provided by youth work are therefore the most suitable to get to learn and practice them.

I have been recently running an international training on social entrepreneurship involving young people from Europe and North Africa (Dare to Change). The training was conceived as a platform for participants to get a taste of what social entrepreneurship is and what it takes to become a social entrepreneur. Other then a simulation to develop an idea of a social venture and practical workshops on related skills, the course also addressed shorter knowledge based sessions, enough to provide the context and to get participants started on the subject. Yet this last was not the core of the training and I am convinced youth work should not aim at it.

Due to the extreme richness of working with groups in learning contexts, and even more international groups, youth work should explore this dimension, making the most out of it, and claim to be recognised in this capacity and expertise.

From the experience of this training course, as well as other, it became evident the need young people have to know themselves better and boost their self-esteem, learn how to work in group and to cooperate, to value each other ideas, to solve conflicts in creative and positive ways, to have the initiative and address related responsibilities, to recognise the values they believe in and use those to inspire others to follow, and so on. These and many other skills and attitudes/values are essential to social entrepreneurs and formal education is barely addressing them, creating a lack that youth work can fill in with success.

And going back to the starting point of this post, to individual agency and responsibility, it is crucial to address it in a variety of ways. For instance to be able to recognise that not all young people are shaped to be social entrepreneurs, as it requires a strong drive that grows from a deep identity layer as change-maker, at the same time that it entails specific skills and attitudes that are not necessarily acquirable through learning and practice. This is perfectly normal in a world where diversity is the rule of life. People cannot be all the same and it is of utmost importance to recognise it, this way being ready to acknowledge individual qualities and potential, and to support young people into the life path that most suits their needs, vocation and way of being.


* Peter Lauritzen has defined youth work as:

The main objective of youth work is to provide opportunities for young people to shape their own futures. Youth work is a summary expression for activities with and for young people of a social, cultural, educational or political nature. Increasingly, youth work activities also include sports and services for young people. Youth work belongs to the domain of ‘out-of-school’ education, most commonly referred to as either non-formal or informal learning. The general aims of youth work are the integration and inclusion of young people in society. It may also aim towards the personal and social emancipation of young people from dependency and exploitation. […] Today, the difficulty within state systems to adequately ensure global access to education and the labour market, means that youth work increasingly deals with unemployment, educational failure, marginalisation and social exclusion.

The definition develops further and can be found in this link.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s