A Beginner’s Guide to Youth Social Enterprise
Written on 10-Mar-2009 by Jessica Wilson
The first time I heard of youth social enterprise was the first time I heard about the Commission for Youth Social Enterprise. I had been contacted by the Commission for a position as Policy Research Assistant as part of my study abroad program in London. The concept of social enterprise was new to me but I knew that I wanted to work for an organization dedicated to helping others. The Commission seemed ideal. Two months later newly arrived in London on my first day of work I knew barely more than I had when I first learned about the Commission. Fortunately by then I had thought to Google social enterprise so I had a fuzzy grasp of the concept. My basic understanding of social enterprise was that it involved entrepreneurs starting their own businesses with a social objective. As far as I could tell youth social enterprise was just social enterprise applied to young people, not the best description but it was what I had to work with.
The Commission’s current research project involves, among other things, compiling a literature review about youth social enterprise, how it has been applied, who’s using it, different definitions and basically all other information available. My part of this research has been to glean information from the Internet in the form of articles, reviews, and organizations discussing youth social enterprise. I’ve spent the past month reading as much as I can about it and I’ve managed to narrow down a rather broad definition to this: there is no narrow definition. The Commission Coordinator, Nick, describes social enterprise as a business model applied to a social problem. Ok, but what does that mean? I had started an internship in an organisation devoted to the idea of youth social enterprise and there I was with a) next to no concise idea what it means or how it operates and b) beginning to doubt that anyone else did either. A bit of an overstatement perhaps but nonetheless that’s how I was beginning to feel.
Through my research I’ve tried to narrow down social enterprise into two categories. There are the organizations that put a portion of their profits into a social cause and there are the businesses that are for a social cause in and of themselves. There aren’t many well known examples of social enterprise out there, much less those that are genuinely led by youth, which is what we are interested in. One of the best known examples of social enterprise is Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant. This restaurant takes disadvantaged young people and teaches them how to become chefs as an opportunity to build life skills and create a future career for themselves. This is applying a business model (a cooking school/restaurant) to a social problem (disadvantaged young people). Fifteen fits within the second business model as a business that is in and of itself a social cause, the business side of the company channels a portion of the profits back into the social aspect of the company. Fifteen isn’t however, run by youth, rather it is run by “adults” people who no longer fit within the loose age range that defines youth, ages 16-25. In order to be a true youth social enterprise the organisation has to be led by young people not just involve young people.
Why aren’t social enterprises well known let alone youth social enterprise? The answer to that is not that social enterprise is a new concept; it’s been around since the late 1800s, but that for some reason they are not considered a viable business option. Charities are an accepted practice, as are profit-driven businesses, why then is the idea of combining the two such a controversial and unknown practice? By generating its own income a social enterprise can control its own funding rather than relying on outside grants and donations. Furthermore a business model focused on generating a profit makes an organisation more sustainable by creating a more solid place within the business environment for itself. Simply put; when money is on the line, people tend to take notice and better care of a company. All right, there is social enterprise in as much of a nutshell as I can muster, but that doesn’t answer where the idea of youth social enterprise fits in.
Earlier I mentioned that Fifteen isn’t a true youth social enterprise. This is because while the company was created to help young people it wasn’t founded and it isn’t run by young people. Young people are the focus but not the facilitators in order to be a true youth social enterprise young people must be both. If social enterprise is considered a risky business, a social enterprise designed and sustained by young people is considered even more risky. Nick expands more on this in his blog but it comes down to this: young people aren’t trusted to start their own companies. We aren’t seen as sustainable entrepreneurs. Give us a few more years and a little more experience and people might be willing to take a chance on a social entrepreneur but right now society’s perception of our age is standing unjustly in our way. Are youth social enterprises sustainable? Can young people really create and run their own businesses? These are questions the Commission hopes to answer with its research.
My attempts to refine the idea of youth social enterprise led to long lists of exceptions and my attempts to pin Nick or Maor, the Research Consultant, down to a concise answer is what led to this blog post in the first place! So far there is no definitive answer as to what youth social enterprise is: there is no pre-fabricated pattern to follow. This lack of definition can work to the benefit of young social entrepreneurs. It allows them the freedom to develop businesses that work for them and their community and the ability to engage the business world and social issues they face on their own terms. A malleable definition fits a malleable market where businesses can grow to fit a niche issue and social objective without the constraints of a definition to line up with.