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Five common challenges faced by social entrepreneurs

CISL Faculty Dr Nicky Dee and Lisa Smith have been involved with the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards since the Awards began in 2013. As well as being lead faculty for the accelerator programme, Nicky and Lisa work closely with every winner to provide mentoring for them and their businesses. Here Nicky shares her insights into the challenges facing young innovators seeking to use their initiatives to create positive change.

The Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards 2019 are open for applications until 30 June.

With applications open for the sixth year of the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards we have been reflecting on the issues and opportunities that entrepreneurs face. Through the awards not only do entrepreneurs win prize money, but more importantly they come to Cambridge for an accelerator programme, make connections within Unilever and other large organisations, and receive mentoring support for a year. All these elements are aimed to help entrepreneurs overcome challenges that so many new businesses often face. 

Over the last six years of the awards, we have recognised the following five common challenges for entrepreneurs.

1. Monetising the solution

The Awards are open to non-profits as well as for-profit organisations, though increasingly social ventures are adopting hybrid models capable of delivering a sustainable business model. Often it makes sense for organisations to set up with a simple, lean model which then adapts as other revenue and income opportunities arise. Social ventures also have to ask about impact and whether the ability and willingness to pay in their target demographic fits with their model and funding aspirations. The excitement of social ventures is whether they can address the Sustainable Development Goals through private enterprise or if public funding is still valid albeit deployed in a more efficient and traceable way. This question is often contingent on connecting with different technologies, some novel, some less so, with new business models and approaches. What we will interrogate during the judging process is whether the entrepreneurs are aware of the different factors influencing their options for a sustainable enterprise going forward, and what this means for creating their intended impact.

2. Scaling up

The Sustainable Development Goals have offered a language for sustainability and outlined, alongside the Paris Agreements and IPCC, the pace of change required to limit climate change and achieve a more equitable and sustainable planet. What is clear is that we not only need clever solutions, but we need these to scale up fast. This challenge requires entrepreneurs to first focus on where they are delivering the most impact, and then what type of scale up they can achieve. This is something we spend a lot of time working through with our entrepreneurs, as it impacts funding requirements, team roles, partnerships and so on. We don’t expect all the answers up front!

3. Fostering partnerships

As touched on above, partnerships are essential to organisations being able to grow – and grow well. Effective partnerships are essential for a young organisation to succeed – but can be very challenging when partners have different objectives, protocols and operate at different speeds and sizes, and sometimes with what seems like a different language. Rather than feeling like an imposter, the entrepreneur must be organised and come with clarity on what will work for them, while being ready to negotiate. Their organisation has value and needs which are legitimate, even if they are currently much smaller than some of their potential partners.

4. Managing transitions

Understandably there are some huge transitions as ventures grow. Navigating when to introduce structure, let alone restructure is one thing, shifting the core activities and focus of the organisation is something else. With the business context and public response to sustainability being in constant flux it is important to remain responsive, while not buckling when dominant voices express doubt. Being open to change while remaining steadfast to the mission can create an uneasy dynamic, but a necessary one. Good judgement is key which is why we always encourage entrepreneurs to also make sure they are looking after themselves and each other.

5. Leading a team

Leading a team through the sometimes tumultuous journey of a young and growing business can be tremendously rewarding and tough all at once. One of the great benefits of the Awards is the opportunity to meet other like-minded entrepreneurs facing similar challenges. This is an informal benefit in addition to the support from the formal training, mentoring and networking. The Awards now has a legacy of successful entrepreneurs who the mentoring team can actively call on when appropriate. And believe us when we say there is no one way to lead and be an entrepreneur so you may as well embrace your individual styles and approaches. We look forward to meeting the next wave of talented young people at the Cambridge accelerator, and to help them towards the next stage of their entrepreneurial journey.”


Applications are now open for the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards 2019 until Sunday 30 June. Find out more and enter today.

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About the author

Dr Nicky Dee

Dr Nicky Dee is a Research Associate, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.

Nicky views innovators and entrepreneurs as a creative force that introduces variety to the economy. From funding mechanisms for new ventures, opportunity screening for eco-innovation, structuring low carbon innovation prizes, and direct input to new ventures, Nicky has focused on the support of new ventures in developed and lesser developed countries. This has included work with Climate KIC, governmental departments, Carbon Trust, Enecsys, European Commission, the University of Cambridge and Colleges, NESTA and others. Not content to just talk about sustainability, Nicky spearheaded the first regular workshops for cleantech entrepreneurs in the East of England, the first business creation competition for sustainable ventures at the University of Cambridge, and founded an award winning sustainable travel business.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.