“My mum and stepfather instilled in me a strong sense of social justice and my stepfather was my first activist role model,” says Professor Jo Barraket, Director Centre of Social Impact, Swinburne.
“I first got involved with social enterprise – in the form of community cooperatives – when I was at university. I loved them so much, I wrote a PhD on them,” she adds.
With a history like this, it seems as though Barraket was always destined for a role championing social enterprise. Yet the professor says it was not her original career choice.
“I did my undergraduate studies in English and Sociology. My honours thesis was on Dr Seuss,” she says. “But I knew I wanted to pursue an academic career with real-world impact. So, I said goodbye to my Seussian studies and focused on sociology, which brought my research interests and my activist interests together. I wrote a PhD on the earliest form of social enterprise – the cooperative model – and the rest is history.”
Indeed, Barraket’s first experience of the social enterprise sector was at her university’s student food co-op.
“I was 18 and realising that you could actually provide delicious food with minimal packaging while making money to reinvest in community causes… it blew my mind,” she says.
Today Barraket’s work in the social enterprise space informs policy development and practice in social enterprise and the development of the social economy. Her years of research and experience see her well placed to chronicle the challenges facing entrepreneurs embarking on a social enterprise. According to Barraket, doing social enterprise ‘well’ is extremely hard work.
“Generating social value and financial value at the same time is no mean feat, and because social enterprises are relatively misunderstood by mainstream business supports, it can be hard to access suitable forms of advice and finance. Another challenge arises when people – with the best intentions in the world – try to solve a social problem with which they have limited experience. This can actually create negative social value – or damage to already vulnerable people and communities.”
In fact, measuring the success of a social enterprise can be hard to quantify. Barraket says much of her research in the arena focuses on this. There is no universal answer. Social enterprises have different social missions, business models, markets, and stakeholders such as funders and government agencies that want different kinds of impact information.
“My common advice is to be clear on why you are measuring your impact as this will affect how you do it. Involve your major stakeholders (including the people your enterprise seeks to serve) early so that you measure the right kinds of things. Try to measure a few things well (measuring social impact can be expensive) and commit to repeat measurement so that you can track progress over time. Most importantly, use this information to learn and improve, not just to prove to others how great you are” she says.
Her advice to entrepreneurs wanting to enter the social enterprise space is to talk to others and test the water first.
“Really test your appetite for this kind of work (it’s rewarding but hard). Really test whether there is a viable market solution that can help solve the social problem you want to address – not every social issue can be solved through the market. And, most importantly, don’t weigh into problems of which you have no experience; commit to learning and respect the expertise of those most affected by the problems you seek to solve. If you have a limited background in either the business or social dimensions of the work, consider the training and technical skills you need and go out and get them.”
Barraket says more recently she has seen an increase in tech-based social enterprises innovating across the space. Yet the digital divide remains an issue for many not-for-profits.
“For example, using virtual reality platforms to support people with physical disabilities to co-design better products for themselves. At the same time, the Giving Australia 2016 research I co-led which was sponsored by the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership shows really clearly how digitally excluded many not for profit organisations are. The large majority of social enterprises in Australia are incorporated as NFPs, so this suggests the business digital divide is a problem for many social enterprises that do not have a tech focus.”
While the number of social enterprises in Australia continues to grow, Barraket believes the government could increase support to encourage entrepreneurship in the sector. Her list of possibilities is long:
“They can create a more enabling regulatory environment for social enterprise and other hybrid forms of business; provide an explicit strategy to support and encourage social enterprise development; provide or stimulate the market for appropriate forms of social finance and help grow social enterprises’ markets by purchasing from them.”
Finally, Barraket encourages the government to promote the work of the sector and recognise it as a valid part of the economy rather than a “cheap solution to welfare needs”.
“State governments in Australia, particularly Victoria and Queensland, are starting to do this well,” she concludes.
Professor Jo Barraket is number 5 on our KBB Power List as voted by you.
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