This fall, the School for Social Entrepreneurs – Ontario (SSE-O) will be opening its doors in Toronto. Based on a highly successful model from the United Kingdom, SSE-O is an innovative, educational and entrepreneurial program that provides action-based learning and skill development for entrepreneurs attempting to launch their own social venture. We recently caught up with the school’s tireless director, Marjorie Victor Brans, to discuss how it all came about, the students SSE-O is hoping to attract, and its long-term vision for social entrepreneurs in the province.
What’s the mission of the school, what is it trying to achieve?
SSE-O develops transformational community leaders and social ventures that produce tangible, visible, meaningful, and positive impact at the community level. That’s a mouthful, but each word in that sentence is significant.
At SSE-O, we are looking for social entrepreneurs who are aiming for that very specific kind of impact. Social ventures and enterprises are successful even when they just push the needle of change a few clicks in the right direction. But SSE-O is interested in working with social entrepreneurs who are crazy ambitious—the ones who won’t settle until folks say, “Wow, my life or our community is radically better because you started your venture.”
Tell us a bit about the history of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, its partners and how it came to Ontario
SSE was founded in 1997 by British sociologist and social entrepreneur extraordinaire, Michael Young. Michael was obsessed by the problem of social inequality in Britain, and in 1958, he coined the term “meritocracy.” What’s surprising is that Michael saw the notion of a meritocracy as dangerous, because he felt the formula of IQ+Effort=Merit failed to recognize that people had very unequal access to good education. Plus, the educational and employment systems were terrible at recognizing human talent in all its forms. .
Michael worried that people who succeeded in the so-called “meritocratic” system would hole up in elite circles and shut out everyone else.
Michael started SSE toward the end of his life, keen to unleash the power of social entrepreneurs who weren’t from the elite.Since the school’s founding, it has trained nearly 1,000 entrepreneurs in the UK and Australia. Here in Ontario, a bunch of folks at Housing Services Corporation, MaRS, ACCESS Community Capital Fund, and Toronto Centre for Community Learning & Development were inspired by SSE and decided to bring the School’s next international franchise to Canada. The Ontario Trillium Foundation has generously backed the school as a three-year pilot.Marjorie Victor Brans, Director, School for Social Entrepreneurs – Ontario
What type of students are you looking for? Do they need to be well-versed in social entrepreneurship?
The school is open to anyone who has an idea and the drive to make the world better—baby boomers, straight-A students, high school drop-outs, really anyone. They don’t need to come well-versed. They just need to come passionate.
On my last trip to the UK, I had the chance to meet more than a dozen SSE fellows. One started at the school barely able to speak English, and now she runs one of the most successful and largest nonprofits in London. Another fellow was still in prison—he wore an ankle bracelet to class and the prison authorities let him out once a week because they believed he was ready not only to turn his life around but those of other people. The school is pretty remarkable in being able to cater to such diverse groups.
Can you explain the format of the school and what people can expect?
SSE’s learning model is highly tailored to each student cohort and each student. So, from year to year, the curriculum changes to reflect the varying interests and levels of understanding. At the beginning of the program, we conduct an assessment of the group’s comfort in key entrepreneurship areas—from soft to hard skills. We then design a program of opportunities geared toward group and individual learning. Individual needs are addressed through tutorials and mentorship in one-on-one meetings.
Group work consists of a few different elements like field trips to see a social enterprise up close and personal.Then there are practitioner sessions, where an experienced social entrepreneur comes into the classroom to share insights he or she has gained over the years. Finally, we hold Action Learning Sets (ALS) – probably the most unusual piece of the curriculum. In ALS, a small group of students take turns helping each other solve a formidable problem that is keeping them up at night. With the help of a trained facilitator, students pose non-judgmental questions that help their peers gain a different perspective on the issue. It seems simple and it is, but deceptively so. In fact, many SSE Fellows rate ALS as the most powerful form of learning in the program. Some fellows continue organizing ALS sessions even after they graduate.
In short, SSE-O doesn’t teach entrepreneurship. It provides opportunities for people with an idea to observe and put entrepreneurship in action for themselves. The program gives fellows the chance to work and socialize with other social entrepreneurs—they act a bit like a Weight Watchers group, figuring out how to succeed together.
SSE has found that most entrepreneurs fail not because they lack the hard, business skills; more often, they get discouraged by naysayers asking “who gives you the right to start this?” The experienced, successful entrepreneurs provide models of behaviour for the softer skills like confidence, legitimacy, and persistence. What students learn at SSE-O is that they don’t need permission. They just go for it. And they keep at it.
Tell us about you, how you came to the school, why it’s so important in your life
Before coming to SSE-O, my career was focused on the intersection of business and global poverty. As I traveled all over the world, I witnessed extraordinary people who were able to create something from nothing. Where lots of people just saw a mound of garbage, special people saw an opportunity to create a vibrant business. I’m excited about bringing some of those stories and lessons to Canada.
Learn more about how to apply as a student or get involved with SSE-O by visiting www.sseontario.org.