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Social Innovators Gain the Competitive Edge

11 December 2013 at 10:59 am
Staff Reporter
Innovation for social change has become a competitive arena - and it’s reaping rewards, writes Nadia Boyce.

Staff Reporter | 11 December 2013 at 10:59 am


Social Innovators Gain the Competitive Edge
11 December 2013 at 10:59 am

Innovation for social change has become a competitive arena – and it’s reaping rewards. 

A new wave of competitions for social startups has hit what is traditionally a collaborative and nurturing space to take innovation and capacity to a new level among young social entrepreneurs. 

In the past month two major competitions have pitted social change ideas head to head – Pitchup, run by the Foundation for Young Australians and The Big Idea, run by The Big Issue. 

The scene at Pitchup

The former saw six of Australia's brightest young social entrepreneurs hand picked to take part in a high pressure masterclass to develop their ideas, before pitching for their share of a $15,000 prize pool, while the latter sought to find new ideas in social enterprise through undergraduate students developing business plans for social enterprises that could deliver benefits to society.

The competitions serve fundamentally different purposes – the former to build capacity and pitching skills for budding social entrepreneurs with established plans and the latter to encourage university students to flirt with the idea of social entrepreneurship – yet have both served to encourage and enlighten their participants.

Pro Bono Australia News spoke to the winners and losers, along with judges including former Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot and Macquarie Foundation head Lisa George about their takeaways from the experience and what it could mean for the social innovation space in Australia.

The Competitive Mindset

Julian O’Shea, 29, is the Director of the Engineers Without Borders Institute and the Pitchup winner. He presented his pitch for The Makeshift Studio, a physical space and program that harnesses technology to address major social issues.

O’Shea says the benefits for him did not come out of the competitive nature of the program, but the preparation for it.  

“It’s an unusual approach…social change is not competitive,” he says. “It was less about the competition and more about showcasing different ideas and ways of thinking.”

O’Shea says competition gives people “permission to have a go”, but requires acceptance that some projects might not work out.

“Competition provides clarity of thought and knowing what it is that you’re doing. It helps in putting your idea in a form that’s easy to share,” he says.

Though, while O’Shea came out on top, not everybody wins, and Alex Robinson’s team was not successful in their bid to take out the Big Idea.  

His team, comprised of medical students from the University of Queensland, developed a car washing system similar to that of The Big Issue. People from disadvantage, such as drug rehabilitation patients and ex-prisoners, would be given car washing kits and trained to occupy pre-designated sites.

Despite emerging from the competition defeated, Robinson felt the system worked to bring out the best in young entrepreneurs. .

“I liked it, it really gives you the push that you need,” he said. “It’s a little bit more pressure and it really puts the emphasis on getting it right.”

It has transformed what was an idea formulated specifically for the competition into a possible reality, the only remaining hurdle the distance between concept and execution. 

“Definitely it’s narrowed the gap,” he says.  “The execution seems a lot closer.”

Pitchup judge Lisa George says the pitching process is a valuable one, spotlighting potential trouble spots. She highlights capacity-building as a key outcome for participants.

“We want them all to come away with something,” she says.

“You can tighten that story and get that story straight … to have the capacity to build on that is critical … it’s all about building their capacity.”

Cheryl Kernot, of the University of New South Wales and Centre for Social Impact, judged The Big Idea. She says competition is one way to bring out the best in prospective social entrepreneurs.

“[Competition] is one way to do it. It forces them to focus … there are some competitions that give them real incentive,” she says.

“A lot of people have great ideas but sit on them,” she adds. “I think competitions help stimulate greater interest.”

O’Shea agrees.

“The difference is that an idea is just that and it doesn’t become real until you put the work behind it to make it reality. Competitions can facilitate that,” he says.

Moulding the Young Social Entrepreneur

Craig Wallace (Chief Operating Officer, Allens), Natasha Stott Despoja (Research Fellow, University of Adelaide), Andrew Penn (Chief Financial Officer, Telstra), Anthony Moorhouse (Founder and CEO, Dynamiq), Cheryl Kernot (Social Business Fellow, Centre for Social Impact), Steven Persson (CEO, The Big Issue). Picture: James Braund

The competitive arena has proven a key way for young social entrepreneurs to connect in what can be a lonely position.

“For social innovation and social enterprise ideas to work they need support…it’s really an invitation [to get involved],” O’Shea says.

“The real benefit is to connect with other people working on similar ideas.”

He describes the buzz around presenting his pitch to a receptive and enthusiastic audience of 400 at the Sydney Opera House – taking social innovation mainstream.

It is a polar to what George concedes is often an isolating position.

“Being a young entrepreneur can be a lonely place,” she says. “Young entrepreneurs don’t have access to those networks.”

O’Shea notes that competitors were not solely from the social sector nor did they fall neatly within stereotypes about social change advocates.

He says the space is increasingly representative of many sectors and backgrounds, paving the way for collaboration.

“There’s diversity within the social enterprise and social innovation approaches. Conversations around that diversity are really important and valuable,” he says.

Broadening horizons

New generation youth with power to both conceive innovative ideas and pull them off could prove to be significant, Cheryl Kernot says.

“A whole lot more young people these days have both…that’s what’s driving the social enterprise movement globally,” she says.

“They are are well-educated, skilled up and have a desire for change. They’re looking for something more.

“We’re seeing examples of career changes where people really want to see that social impact.”

O’Shea also acknowledges a shift.

“This is a generation where social innovation will be less niche and more core,” he says.

A roadblock he anticipates is the lack of knowledge of social innovation in the broader community.

Alex Robinson is an example.

All six of his team of medical students have business aspirations – to study MBAs, open private clinics and run their own businesses.

“My knowledge [of social enterprise] was really minimal before,” he says. “I knew the concept of social business existed but once we dove in there was so much more to it.”

For The Big Idea, a competition solely the domain of universities, this year marked significant growth in participation.

The competition ran as a pilot program at two universities in 2012 and has expanded to include 10 universities and 150 students this year.

Looking Ahead

Kernot sees the work of these students as part of a broader shift where social enterprise is embedded in business cultures.

“[Social enterprise] is not just a flavour of the month,” she says.

“[Corporates] see the social value they get from working with a social enterprise.”

She also speaks of the pliability of social enterprise as a community engagement mechanism for small businesses who cannot take on broader sustainability or CSR programs.  

“Here’s a way that small business can give back,” she says.“I think it changes the old CSR application. It changes the way business does business.”

George says that compared to 10 years ago, more for-profits are taking an interest in social change.

“Companies think about their next generation of talent. They are increasingly asking what’s happening in the social space,” she says.

Meanwhile, Robinson’s team will reunite in time, having synchronised their holiday time to speak seriously about getting their idea off the ground. O’Shea’s idea is up and running already, having recently secured space for the Makeshift Studio.

A team of students from La Trobe University won The Big Idea with an idea for an urban landscaping social enterprise called Revegetate, which would sell quirky, living vertical walls to cafes, hotels and restaurant and hire unemployed youth.


Staff Reporter  |  Journalist  |  @ProBonoNews


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