Discovering passionate social entrepreneurs – pre-start-up detective work?!

Written by Inge Hill

Somebody is holding a magnifying glass up in front of their face. They are wearing a stripy jacket.

Have you recently thought about how to increase student engagement with having students across the UK and abroad? Working now for The Open University (OU), I am learning from my amazing academic colleagues and those in enterprise support what the expert institution of online and distance learning has put in place.

I did not know that several well-designed online courses are freely accessible to all and everyone – in the world! For example,

  • Learning about turning ideas into reality in a 24-hours-course in your own time, also earning an accredited CPD badge, or
  • An Introduction to ‘invention and innovation

Working in the Business School Department for Public Leadership and Social Enterprise, my commitment and passion to mainstream learning about social enterprise meets plenty of like-minded academic colleagues, including an active social entrepreneur.

But not only there, the OU’s mission to be open to people, places, methods and ideas also materialises in its annual competition, the Open Business Creators Fund, which is open to OU students across the UK. This competition regularly sees ideas for social enterprises rise to the top. I am delighted to judge submissions both for start-up funding and those companies running for at least a year already this summer.

Alumni Emma Prince founded this award-winning CIC, and won her first funding with this competition ( in 2018. I cannot wait to be a detective uncovering the next amazing (social) entrepreneurs!

Here are my three tips based on insights on social enterprise support gained in having supported many start-ups when running my own strategy and research consultancy in the past and via EEUK:

Assess that the passion and commitment to making a difference is at the core of what the individual / team is focusing on!

There have been always some start-ups / people feeling they can gain utmost profits for themselves and not the community under the banner ‘social enterprise’.

Identify if the team/individual has indeed found a social problem and articulates it clearly!

Sometimes, founders have an idea and run with it without identifying for whom and how many the supposed social issue is indeed an issue – have they run the idea of a social problem by those affected and those dealing with it? And – have they done sufficient industry and market research?

Explore if the team/individual have or intend to validate the solution with beneficiaries or buyers and have the resilience to try out other solutions.

Building on the insights gained under tip 2, I have seen an idea for a social enterprise ‘dissolve’ when the founder was starting to trade and only then realised that his solution was not appreciated that much by the beneficiaries nor the customers.

I remember an environmental consultancy start-up I supported funded by an ERDF programme, and the founder had jumped with both legs into starting the consultancy aimed at social enterprise when I met him. He only learnt after having spent several thousand pounds and hundreds of hours that the intended customers did not like the approach taken! He had not discussed the solution nor the problem sufficiently with others, in particular the target customers outside of his circle of friends!

Dr Inge Hill
The Open University
Director, Enterprise Educators UK

Photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash