Can social and commercial entrepreneurs learn successfully together?

By | October 24, 2013

The Erasmus Mundus social economy project aims to enhance the teaching and practice of social economy on university campuses. An important aspect of this is to consider how to best educate those who will run businesses for social purposes.

The tension between social and business values can be problematic in business skills courses for social entrepreneurs

Social entrepreneurs often have a background in the community and social development field and are less likely to have developed management skills. In addition, they may consider these skills to be in conflict with their social values. An article from 2012 by researchers from Howarth, Smith and Parkinson from Lancaster University, UK compares two courses which offered business skills education: one ‘non-specialist’ for commercial and social entrepreneurs together; the other dedicated entirely to social entrepreneurs.

The authors believe that social entrepreneurs are more likely to position themselves in terms of their roles in the community than in management with some seeing themselves in opposition to ‘proper business’. Yet to achieve their social aims they need to act in entrepreneurial ways in identifying opportunities for obtaining funding and for doing business. Social entrepreneurs need to develop business and management skills, and the authors argue that management educators need to understand how concerns about identity and mission could affect social entrepreneurs’ engagement with the course.

To help social entrepreneurs through the uncertainties and unique circumstances they face the authors argue that it is important to help them develop the skill of reflective thinking, which could be useful in allowing them to step back from the situation and lead their governing board in critically assessing the issue.

Drawing on Lave and Wenger (1991), they argue that learning is ‘socially situated’ and takes place in ‘communities of practice’, in this case the cohort of learners on the course. The authors found that with this pedagogical approach, combining social and commercial entrepreneurs in the same course could be beneficial. There are aspects of the work of commercial and social entrepreneurs which have much in common, such as resource constraints, uncertainty about the environment in which they are operating and lack of power in the marketplace. They suggest that the mix of learners led to rich and open conversations about motivation for their work and different criteria for measuring success; and that confidence was built by discussing and how they dealt with the many challenges they had in common.  On the other hand, a member of the dedicated social entrepreneur group reported everyone being ‘stuck in the same boat [about] funding and insecurity’.

The authors conclude that ‘mixed’ courses of commercial and social entrepreneurs can be successful as long the specific context of social entrepreneurs is acknowledged and taken into account; and that the ‘community of practice’ approach enabled the cohort to develop a common identity first and foremost as learners.



Howorth, C., Smith, S. and Parkinson, C. (2012) ‘Social learning and social entrepreneurship education’. Academy of Management Learning & Education. 2012 Vol 11, No. 3, pp.371-389

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.