What is the shape of social enterprise at Southampton today?
To start with, social enterprise was our focus, and it was based on promoting a marriage between charity and business. We have moved on in the last two years, to focus more on social innovation, the method to create positive social change, and social entrepreneurship, which is a focus on the skills and attributes of changemakers. For us there are two simultaneous processes: an outer journey which involves human-centred problem solving, and an inner journey, of social impact leadership. We want to nurture both to produce high impact social ventures and what we’re calling borderless leaders: graduates with the skillsets and disposition to tackle complex global challenges.
How did the idea of having a focus on social innovation at the University begin?
Social entrepreneurship in higher education has been around for seven or eight years now, but it was yet to be implemented at Southampton when I arrived in 2010. The University strategy has turned towards social entrepreneurship, as it’s fundamentally linked to employability, giving students a distinctive experience, and it offers international opportunities. It grew through initial conversations in our academic unit (Social Sciences), on small ventures, and it has mushroomed since then. A great deal of the impetus for our initiatives has come from the student body – there’s a huge appetite for social entrepreneurship. This generation is as motivated by mission as it is by money, and they want to apply themselves to global challenges. They have an enormous sense of social and environmental responsibility. We’ve been fortunate to have support from the Head of Academic Unit, our Dean, the Pro Vice-Chancellors and the Vice-Chancellor. We now have a curriculum innovation module in Social Enterprise, and we launched our Social Impact Lab in October, which consolidates our local and international work.
What is on the social entrepreneurship agenda for you at the moment?
The launch of the Social Impact Lab is a landmark moment in the growth of social entrepreneurship at the University. It builds on our local and international work to offer students a journey from the campus to the world, solving problems that directly affect them and those which are beyond their immediate experience. The first phase of the programme involves improving the sustainability and liveability of life on campus, the second involves helping to tackle social issues in Portswood, and the third will be an international social innovation challenge in India. It’s a journey that demands the cultivation of skills that characterise the attributes of 21st century leaders: global astuteness, creativity, interdisciplinary agility, and network fluency.These are the skills that we’re defining as those of borderless leadership, because they transcend disciplinary and national borders.
What is the international reach of your work?
A good example of our international work is last year’s social enterprise camp in India, attended by 10 students from Southampton. We wanted to give students from across the University a group internship opportunity, with students from India, as part of a five-week challenge working with Indian social enterprises. The students needed this time to understand India, understand the businesses they were working with, and understand their own value. We reached the finals of The Guardian University Network awards for that project. It is now known as the International Social Innovation Challenge, and was repeated in August, in Delhi in partnership with OP Jindal Global University and Lahore University of Management Sciences (supported by the British Council). Women’s empowerment was be the focus of the challenge, and we were excited by the opportunity for our students to creatively tackle a deeply entrenched, multi-sided and complex issue. We’re also working with universities in Canada to head up a Social Impact Summit in Toronto in February 2016.
You say social entrepreneurship is about leadership. What do you mean by this?
It goes back to an approach which places equal emphasis on the growth of social ventures and nurturing social impact leaders. We have a good track record in growing successful and scalable social ventures, but there are always occasions when projects don’t succeed. That’s fine – entrepreneurship at university has to be a place to experiment and fail ‘forward’ – and what’s important is the journey of the social entrepreneur. It is imperative that we encourage students to learn to take risks, because that’s what entrepreneurship is all about. Whether they go on to become social entrepreneurs or not is not the measure of the success of our programme. It is the extent to which they have undergone a leadership journey and developed distinctive skills and experience which equips them to take on leadership positions when they graduate from Southampton.
Are there any examples of where students’ social innovation married up with University research has led to a successful social venture?
Some of our some students’ ventures have been extremely successful. SanEco, which is running in Kenya and Uganda and was conceived by our Enactus students, uses toilets made from majority-recycled materials to convert human waste into compost to fertilise fields. This was based on research conducted in Engineering. We have another called the Biggest Tree, which is the first social enterprise we have run by a PhD student, Miguel Gonzalez Canudas from Electronics and Computer Science. He has developed a technique that can preserve and dehydrate fruit that is going to waste, for up to three months, and convert it into dried fruit. We’re delighted that Waitrose have agreed to house the production process at their local store in Portswood, and that they will be selling the fruit in stores across the South. Miguel is leaving the University in a few months but he is handing the venture over to other students to continue to grow and scale it.
There is also another one that is very interesting, called Utensale, which has grown from a project designed on our Curriculum Innovation Module, Social Enterprise, which recycles kitchen utensils that international students leave behind, and sell them to new students at a fractional cost, saving waste and money. Utensale has now been integrated into the Students’ Union’s recycling campaign, which is a great example of another of our partnerships.