Our snowy Backyard Bootcamp at the Cabinet Office

On a snowy Friday in London, we descended on the Cabinet Office for our first Backyard Bootcamp of 2013. We were hosted by the Cabinet Office’s Social Investment and Finance Team, who challenged us to explore how universities could kick-start social change in Britain.

We were particularly interested in how universities could identify and nurture the next generation of social entrepreneurs – to tackle society’s ills and fill the pipeline for Big Society Capital, which invests in social enterprises via intermediary organisations.

The Backyard Bootcamp was hosted by the Cabinet Office’s Social Investment and Finance Team

To date, many of the country’s highest-growth social ventures have been initiated by private sector teams rather than ambitious young people straight out of university. Take Teach FirstThe Challenge and Entrepreneur First for example – their founders are all ex-McKinsey.

But there’s reason to believe that the foundations are being laid for a different kind of social entrepreneurship trajectory (perhaps one closer to the now famous dorm room startup story of Mark Zuckerberg). ‘Social MBAs’ like those offered by Saïd Business School’s Skoll Centre, incubators like Emerge Venture Lab that have their roots in student-initiated social enterprise, and the student volunteering charity Student Hubs are all seeing increased demand for their services – and interest in social entrepreneurship more generally.

And so we ventured off, through the snow, to Imperial College to meet graduates on the Student Hubs grad scheme, and managers of the Imperial Hub, the UnLtd-HEFCE programme and Studentfunder.com.

We got out of the building to interview student volunteers and experts – gathering insights to feed into our recommendations.

So what did we come with?

Developing an entrepreneurial mindset

We uncovered a certain amount of risk-aversion among socially-minded students – setting their sights on securing a job in a think tank or charity, rather than using entrepreneurship to create their own innovative solutions to society’s problems. Shaking off the fear of failure and embracing experimentation seems to be particularly difficult for those who’ve been conditioned by a life of straight A successes.

We brainstormed a “Meet the Failures” campaign to challenge socially-minded students to recognise that successful people achieve great things by trying, failing and iterating. We also explored whether an alternative to university (an idea that is also being developed in the States with a focus on disadvantaged young people) might create a more experiential learning experience that could better prepare the next generation of social entrepreneurs.

Bridging the culture gap

A cultural gulf between social science students and business students was also a key theme – with socially-minded students seeing business students as cold-blooded profiteers who, in turn, saw social science students as worthy and naïve. It’s a crude way of articulating the point but this cultural difference on campus may well be holding us back from creating powerful multi-disciplinary teams with deep insight into social issues and business acumen and ambition.

We considered whether corporates could be used as a hook to attract students destined for conventional private sector careers – much like Teach First did ten years ago when they first cajoled top graduates into eschewing consulting and banking for 2 years of teaching by securing brand partnerships with the very same companies they were competing for talent with. A growing interest in social entrepreneurship and social innovation from talented grads has already driven a proliferation of social enterprise programmes from corporates including RBS, Santander, PWC and Deloitte. Channelling this CSR energy, funding and expertise towards student-initiated social enterprise activity – by encouraging social enterprise programmes and competitions on campus – could sow the seeds for the next wave of social enterprise.

Targeting resources on the toughest issues

We discovered that student social action was often centred on ‘sexier’ social issues like those relating to young people, the climate and global poverty. For example, Student Hubs only thematic areas of work are educational disadvantage, climate change and international development. Other issues, including the ageing population, homelessness, unemployment and lifestyle-related diseases receive less attention.

We recommended that the government encourage challenges across all universities that target the most intractable social issues and use a simple set of metrics to measure impact. These challenges could engage the worlds of business, social action and design in a common endeavour. Potential partners, and sources of investment, might include the Dell Social Innovation Challenge, one of the Cabinet Office’s own (soon to be announced) social venture incubators, the RSA’s Student Design Awards or Design programmes like the RCA-Imperial Innovation Design Engineering programme. And further inspiration could be drawn from the extraordinary successes of programmes like Extreme at the d-School at Stanford.

The day culminated with networking drinks in the Cabinet Office’s Churchill Room.

The Year Here team would like to extend a massive thank you to the event participants, who showed great thoughtfulness and creativity, our event partners (Student Hubs, On Purpose, Emerge Venture Lab and Finance Matters) and the Cabinet Office – who were extraordinarily generous with their time and in their openness to new ideas.