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Leadership Spotlight: Alastair Wilson, chief executive, School of Social Entrepreneurs

Alastair Wilson is the chief executive of the London-based School of Social Entrepreneurs. He spoke to NewStart about balancing social impact with making money, why their students must be practitioners and how data is revolutionising retail.

How do you balance social impact with making money?

Students come to us primarily looking through an impact lens. That’s their driver and what they are passionate about, whether it be mental health or reoffending or gang violence. It’s often rooted in their personal experience so that’s where we will start when we interview someone.

We want to work out whether their depth of understanding is authentic and genuine. That’s a prerequisite.

The bit that they are often weaker at is making their idea sustainable and creating income. That’s the bit we are asked to pick up. We run leadership programmes to help people build an enterprise engine onto their social purpose organisation they are trying to create.

How has the course changed over 20 years?

We’re in a massive period of austerity and after the financial crash many of the grand funders left the sector, so there was a big tilt towards enterprising behaviour, trading, earning income and proxy markets.

Very little has changed in terms of how the actual courses are delivered. The school was devised by Michael Young who believed the primary deficit people were facing was the softer skills behind being a social entrepreneur. So we focus on things that are more difficult to teach like confidence, legitimacy, attitude, mindset and persistence. The learning methodology we adopt allows us to do peer learning and all our learners are practitioners. That’s really powerful for people.

If you’re in the world of regeneration then you need to be aware of what you don’t know, be willing to admit you don’t know it and be confident to network and go and find out more. That’s what we do with people. We help them become confident operators but have humility too. They won’t know all the answers but that’s part of the art of sustaining new solutions to society.

These softer skills sound like the kind of things that should be taught more in secondary schools.

I couldn’t agree more. In New Zealand and Australia, quite a lot of school learning is embedded through doing and by being practitioners. These days content is easy to come by and the half-life of hard skills is decreasing.

Pouring content into people is futile so we teach life skills that will last you a lifetime, such as how to bring people on board with your enterprise whilst building momentum.

There are great examples in schools. There’s a fellow of our school called Tom Ravenscroft who set up Enabling Enterprise. It’s amazing and is now in thousands of schools. Groups of schoolchildren conceive of a social enterprise and get it going. He’s an ex-teacher and realised how farcical it was trying to teach enterprise in the abstract. It’s bizarre. That’s been a huge hit.

What are some of the other memorable enterprises your students have set up?

Think of an area and we’ve got a fellow of the school who has worked in there. One I hugely admire is Junior Smart and his SOS Gangs project which he set up after a spell in prison. He realised that those who are convicted of gang offences when they are released have to go back to where they came from, and it’s really difficult to shake your reputation.

Junior knew acutely what that meant and he came here and offered a solution. SOS Gangs Project is for people who served time for gang offences. They can meet others on the same level and support each other in their attempts to reinvent themselves and build their confidence and change their lives. The results are just phenomenal and they’ve seen a huge reduction in reoffending.

Your first social enterprise was a project that supported the homeless over twenty years ago. What innovations have you seen from your sector that can help tackle the current homelessness crisis?

There’s lots of innovation coming out from the members of Homeless Link so homeless people can trade and earn income and build on initiatives such as The Big Issue and Change Please to blend vocation and dignity into the homelessness question.

Are consumers looking at the social or environmental mission of a business more than before?

The thing that gives me hope is the next generation is so much more passionate about the whole area of purpose and social enterprise and other mission-related stuff. We’re getting youngsters who don’t think any other way. It’s obvious and natural for them. They get the commercial bit and they get the mission bit and they want to fuse them together.

The Social Value Act has been strengthed of late and we’re looking to challenge the Government to spend money on social enterpsie and get it into the suppy chain.

Social EnterpriseUK has a thing called the Supply Chain Challenge with some huge companies involved who are all committing to spending vast sums of money on social enterprises.

Both the B2B and the B2C worlds are waking up to the possibilities of social enterprise and fusing what people need to buy with the opportunities that rests with us all to make positive choices.

CoGo has come over from New Zealand. It’s fascinating. You go on the CoGo website and link your credit card and debit cards then answer questions about plastics in the ocean, child labour, living wage etc.

CoGo then tracks what you’re spending, so they can say to Lidl, for example, that did you know last month £28m came through your till from people that care about plastics in the ocean.

What was once blind for retailers and big companies, there are now opportunities for the retailer to begin to understand that people care about those issues. The opportunities with tech and data allow the masses to get their values heard and reinvent the whole market. Tech and data is the big hope.

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