Living and learning – a year at SSE

Last Thursday was my final day at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. We still have our graduation ceremony to go but the one year course is now over.

As Claudia Calahane points out in a thoughtful recent piece on social enterprise training for The Guardian: “When it comes to social enterprise training, the SSE will often be the first name on many people’s lips.” Having been started by (Lord) Michael Young in 1997 – a few years before the politicians had worked out that social enterprise was the answer to everything – and building on Young’s own experiences as a serial instigator of enterprising projects to deliver social change, SSE has a justified reputation as the market leader in providing aspiring social entrepreneurs with ideas, practical tools and confidence to get on with doing whatever it is they plan to do.

It’s not a course in the way that the university-based courses mentioned in Calahane’s article are. There are no essays or exams. You graduate and become a fellow of SSE by virtue of turning up to at least 80% sessions. The major point of the course is to learn both from the stories and knowledge passed on by social entrepreneurs who’ve been there and done it (or been somewhere and done something) and from each other.

I was unusual in coming to SSE as a relatively experienced social entrepreneur. Out of my group of 20 ‘block’ students – we did the one year course in blocks of three days as opposed to attending once a week – four or five were people who’d been working on their projects or running their organisation for several years, while the other 15 students had either just set up their organisations, or were just about to set it up at the beginning of the year.

SSE caters for a wide age range and the focus tends to be on helping people who have come to social enterprise after some experience doing something else. This meant I was in the interesting position of being both one of the youngest people in my group and also one of the most experienced in the world of social enterprise.

Being a few years down the social enterprise road meant some of the sessions that would have been phenomenally useful when I was first started – such as the guide to manage finances – primarily served to provoke rueful thoughts of how much better it would’ve been to know then what I know now. But the ‘witness sessions’ with social entrepreneurs (from a range of sectors) talking about their experiences and answering questions were both enlightening and inspirational.

The point is not that you learn anything theoretically extraordinary. For example, most TV shows about business will waffle on about the importance of taking risks but that’s not quite the same as hearing Greenworks‘ Colin Crooks explain how he took on a contract to recycle the office furniture for a major bank, despite the fact that at the time his company consisted of him, a work experience kid and a small hired van. And there’s plenty of books about promoting a positive culture in your organisation but that’s not quite the same as going to Happy, taking in the bright yellow decor and hearing Henry Stewart talk about what he does and why.

Ultimately, I think all education that works, works partly because it gives you something to fall back on when you don’t know what to do next and you’re in danger of losing faith in yourself and your abilities. Trained medical staff obviously need to be able to fall back on the knowledge that they are practically competent in the work they do and that they have a certificate to prove it.

It’s a different for entrepreneurs, and it’s different kind of different for social entrepreneurs. What unites social entrepreneurs and conventional entrepreneurs is that one of the biggest determinants of success is how much you want it. That’s not because popular symbols of entrepreneurial  ‘for realness’ such as emoting your passion and wearing your mission on your sleeve are necessarily going to make you any better selling your goods or services . They might or they might not. It depends on what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to.

‘Wanting it’ matters because striking out on your own is always going to be difficult and if you don’t really want it, it won’t take too many missed dinners before the call of the steady salary becomes too powerful to resist. For conventional entrepreneurs, the desire for some combination of money, power and acknowledged success may be enough to keep you going when you’re down to your last tin of soup. For social entrepreneurs, there’s a fair chance you’ll never get any of these things even if your enterprise does really well.

So what you need beyond a desire to change the world is some people to show that changing the world is possible and explain how they did it, and some other people to share your pain as you try to follow their example. That’s what you at SSE.

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