Breaking into Social Enterprise

CEO Jack Graham writes about his strategies for success.


Participants at a Good For Nothing event.

This article was originally written for Milkround by Year Here’s CEO, Jack Graham.

For generations, bright graduates have been interested in what they can do to improve society and address inequality.

But the options for socially-conscious graduates in 2014 might seem limited. While Teach First and Frontline offer a recognised entry route into education and social work respectively, your interests might lie elsewhere; months and months of think tank internships are unlikely to teach you much more than stapling skills; and the prospect of becoming an admin assistant in a charity – if you beat 100s of other applicants to the job that is – probably doesn’t fill you with excitement.

But recently, some trailblazing grads have been discovering Social Enterprises, businesses with a social mission. For those who are left cold by corporates, social enterprise is business with a heart. For those who have doubts about the effectiveness of traditional non-profit activity, social enterprise is charity with a brain.

And it’s booming. There are now 70,000 social enterprises in the UK – from Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant, that employs kids from tough backgrounds, to Fair Finance, that tailor the loans they offer to the needs of poor people. But the field is still new and that means that graduate pathways into the sector are not yet formalised.

I’ve been working in the social enterprise field for five years and now run Year Here, a postgraduate social innovation programme. Without any exaggeration, I have read 1000s of graduate CVs.  I know how hard it is to get a foot in the door. I also know that social enterprise can achieve nothing without great people. Great people like you.

So, I want to offer you one bitter pill to swallow and six strategies to kick off your social enterprise career.

The bitter pill: Your academic success only gets you to the starting blocks.

Sadly, the skills and knowledge that you acquired at university are unlikely to be relevant to the social enterprise that needs to facilitate a training session with some rowdy school children or prepare a killer pitch for tomorrow. Grades are only relevant to employers to the extent that they confirm your intellect and application – that’s all.

But you can’t wallow your way out of the misery of graduate unemployment. The race is on to differentiate yourself.

Six strategies for social enterprise success

The good news is that while it might conjure up images of backstabbing your way to the top, ‘differentiating yourself’ can be an enriching, collaborative and fun experience.

My six strategies are:

  1. Nourish the brain: Social Enterprise is about society and innovation, so make sure you’re thinking loads about both. Try reading Co.ExistGood.isThe Economist and the Stanford Social Innovation Review. And head off to some of the brilliant and free events at the LSE and the RSA.
  2. Make yourself useful. When you’re job hunting, it’s far too easy to go down a wormhole of self-flagellation. Helping others will get things into perspective and remind you that your energy and creativity can be put to good use. Join a Good For Nothing chapter or a Make Sense gang to help social entrepreneurs solve their business problems.
  3. Learn how to learn. The world is changing so rapidly that the skills you’ll need for tomorrow are not being taught anywhere today. At Year Here, we believe that auto-didactic skills (the ability to teach yourself) are going to define the winners and losers of the 21stcentury. Go shadow an expert for a day, get yourself a mentor or take a free online course with UdacityCoursera or Khan Academy.
  4. Meet people. Social Enterprise Backr says that 80% of jobs are never advertised and most of us find work by word of mouth. With this in mind, networking should be an essential part of your job search strategy. Find your local Impact Hub or come along to one of Year Here’s events to meet people that might lead to the next opportunity.
  5. Start something. Starting your own project shows ingenuity and drive. If you’re under 25, O2Think BigUnLtdThe Awesome FoundationFilanthropy and The Youth Funding Network could give you some dosh to get started.
  6. Go beyond the usual suspects. Generally, the big employers get the most applications. And working for a big organisation means you have less scope to stretch yourself. Alternatively, check out our list of emerging ‘social innovations’, new organisations and initiatives that tackle some of Britain’s toughest social issues. Follow them on twitter, sign up to their mailing lists and be the first to find out when they have a job opportunity.