Social Enterprise and Youth: "Why didn’t anyone ever teach us about this?”

m - Mark Sparrow, NS Co-operative Council (mark@novascotia.coop)

“Why didn’t anyone ever teach us about this?”

If you’ve ever been involved in a social enterprise workshop with youth there’s a very good chance you’ve gotten this question.

Since 2007, I’ve been organizing and presenting in workshops that introduce the concept of social enterprise to students in secondary and post-secondary schools in Nova Scotia. The frequency and intensity with which that one question keeps coming up highlights how students, and rightfully so, can’t understand why anyone would have kept this concept, this movement, and this significant chunk of the social and economic fibre that makes up our communities from being a part of their formal educational experience.

I find myself often asking the very same question.

In a province where entrepreneurship is typically offered as an elective in high school (and therefore not taken as seriously by students or staff as the core courses), I admit I am not overly optimistic that we will see social enterprise gain a place of prominence on the syllabus in the immediate future. Luckily though, in the meantime, there are a number of great organizations in Nova Scotia that have taken matters into their own hands and are introducing the concept of blended bottom-line business models to students and youth with great fanfare throughout the province.

The Students in Business program of the CBDC’s has been very successful at building relationships with schools to bring entrepreneurship and social enterprise workshops into classrooms, many times resulting in the formation of new youth-owned businesses and social enterprise start-ups.

Common Good Solutions  has been successfully hosting highly interactive, multi-day, Social Enterprise Launchpad workshops for youth across Nova Scotia with a two-fold intention of educating youth on the topic and identifying those who are ready to take the first steps to start-up.

The Nova Scotia Co-operative Council has recently entered into its second year in partnership with Junior Achievement of Nova Scotia, bringing the co-operative model option into JA’s successful extracurricular “Company Program”.

Youth, from my experience at least, seem innately interested in the concept that you can simultaneously do business while addressing a common need and pressing social issue in your community. You can see the “a ha!” moment during workshops when students recognize that they’re being introduced to something refreshingly relevant to their outlook on life which speaks not just to a basic idea of entrepreneurship but to their ideas of civic responsibility to their communities as well. That’s when they realize nobody taught them about this before. And that’s when the hands start going up.

Students are used to hearing stories of famous entrepreneurial giants like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg who have turned their ideas into massive global corporations. While these stories can be inspiring, they can also seem like a distant fairy tale. Stories of large global corporations only really speak to a certain type of entrepreneur as well. Entrepreneurs are diverse in their goals, personal values, and in what motivates them. Rags to riches entrepreneurship stories don’t do much to inspire those social entrepreneurs who would be more interested in using business as a means of addressing the challenges they see around them in their communities than becoming a jet setting multi-national CEO.

This other kind of entrepreneur is inspired by stories of businesses that focus on things like environmental sustainability, workplace democracy, fair trade, local ownership, local decision-making, ethical marketing, concern for community, co-operation, human need above human greed, etc. These social entrepreneurs would be more inspired by learning about Nova Scotia’s own Antigonish Movement, or of the women of Café Feminino in Peru, or of Mondragon, the worker-owned co-operative complex in Spain.

Many of these stories and themes are part of an excellent new educational unit that is currently available for free to educators looking to offer lessons of this nature. The unit, “All 4 Each – A Unit to Inspire A Co-operative Conscience” was designed for high school civics, business and world studies classes and can be downloaded for free at http://s.coop/classroom.

If you have any doubts that social enterprise is an effective tool for unlocking entrepreneurship skills while simultaneously connecting youth to their local communities in meaningful ways, then please watch this recent appearance by Hope Blooms, a group of young social entrepreneurs from Halifax who recently appeared on the Dragon's Den.

While these programs and resources all make great contributions, they all come from outside of the formal system and therefor can only reach a certain number of students.

Stephen McNeil, Nova Scotia’s newly elected premier, ran on a platform to conduct a comprehensive curriculum review meant to “find out what is working and what isn’t” and to “reinvigorate the curriculum”.

Perhaps now is the time for Nova Scotia’s social enterprise community to prepare and make our case. We’d be in for a better future if our students never had to ask “why didn’t anyone ever teach us about this?”.