A look back at the challenges faced in engaging and supporting the social sciences entrepreneurship

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27th September 2021

The Aspect Entrepreneurship Community of Practice (CoP) formed in response to a general experience that the social sciences (other than Business school and related disciplines) are less involved in entrepreneurship than are the STEM disciplines. For example, university spinouts have traditionally come from STEM subjects. From the early days of the CoP, members convened to share what they saw as key challenges university entrepreneurship hub’s faced in engaging and supporting the social sciences.

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Ent workshop series, Entrepreneurship and The University of Sussex

This post, by Wen Chen, aims to summarise the discussions from the early meetings and review what challenges the CoP have started to address, supported by Aspect. For an excerpt of the complete set of challenges discussed at early CoP meetings, please see Box 1.

Language used in communicating entrepreneurship

One of the key challenges discussed among CoP members concerned the language around entrepreneurship. Aspect members shared their concern that the ways in which entrepreneurship had been communicated may not resonate with some social sciences disciplines. This topic was discussed predominantly in the context of initial engagement. Using the appropriate language is important in developing programming and support that aligns with, and speaks to, the motivation and needs of social sciences students.

It is also challenging to disentangle the extent to which a language shift by itself is sufficient verses. whether it is only truly effective when combined with meaningful changes in programme design. For example, some disciplines might not typically conceive of commercialisation or entrepreneurship as relevant to them or may not identify with entrepreneurship. Is it enough to change the language used in communicating ‘entrepreneurship’ to these disciplines? Or is specific programming and support developed to attract and retain engagement within these disciplines also required?

What types of new entrepreneurship support are relevant for social sciences?

The view was taken that what’s required is a combination of new or substantially adapted programming and the use of appropriate language and imagery to communicate the support and service offerings. The challenge becomes: what is the support and programming that attracts and is relevant to underrepresented social sciences disciplines? This challenge further begs questions: on the one hand, to what extent do students from the social sciences face different challenges in their entrepreneurship journey? And if they do, what are the different challenges they face? For instance, Aspect members have observed that students from social sciences disciplines may face challenges in business or software skills. Members also noted that those from the social sciences are more likely to form multidisciplinary founding teams, typically alongside technical and/or product co-founders; however, identifying co-founders from other disciplines can pose a challenge. As such, programming that addresses pain points for the social sciences may be a good start.

Members also posed the question of whether students from the social sciences tend to establish different types of businesses or entities to those established by STEM students (and they can be more interested in intrapreneurship?).  This being the case, how can they best be supported in these diverse pathways? Also, is social science entrepreneurship defined by certain methodology or is entrepreneurship multidisciplinary by nature? For example, is ‘social enterprise’ necessarily ‘social science-based’? The different pathways and business models that social sciences entrepreneurship may take have important ramifications for the types of support and funding that these early-stage start-ups require from university entrepreneurship hubs.

Since some social science disciplines are less engaged in entrepreneurship than others, some Aspect members posed a hypothesis that intrapreneurship (spearheading innovation within an existing, established business) may be more attractive to these students. CoP members were of the view that entrepreneurial and innovative skills are important for students, and it is beneficial to cultivate these skills, whether as an employee, employer, founder, co-founder, or freelancer.

Developing an effective environment of student engagement and support

After identifying the topics and/or types of support that are relevant for the social sciences, the next challenge is: how to design and implement programming that becomes an effective environment for student engagement and support?

Aspect members discussed challenges around designing and running programmes that that are inclusive, accessible and sustainable. On inclusiveness, members discussed challenges in terms of attracting students from diverse backgrounds who are traditionally underrepresented in entrepreneurship, namely women and black and minority ethnic (BAME) students. Further, in response to the switch to virtual operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, digital programming has been increased to make support more accessible to students and alumni located across the globe. One of the early workshops from the CoP discussed challenges and lessons learned in supporting students remotely during the first COVID-19 lockdown in UK. Since then, members have seen the value of leveraging the digital medium, not only in support provision but also as part of broader strategy in building innovation ecosystems. At the same time, members also shared their experiences of challenges on the digital front and how best to balance digital with in-person support in a post-pandemic ‘new normal’.

On sustainability in running these programmes, challenges included operating and delivering programming under severe resource constraints, along with building innovative revenue streams. On both fronts, engaging alumni has been discussed and explored as part of the solution. However, many members also shared challenges around engaging, managing, monitoring and retaining alumni connections.

Some members noted the importance and challenge around ensuring that programming looks after the best interests of students and provides a safe space for students to develop confidence to own their failures along with being able to recognise when entrepreneurship is not the right path for them.

Who owns what in university-based enterprise development?

At a macro-level, the challenge lies in developing an innovation ecosystem for the social sciences. To engage under represented disciplines, university entrepreneurship hubs often engage the academic departments to discuss how to introduce entrepreneurship support and engagement to students. In these conversations, academics may also show interest in receiving entrepreneurship support in commercialising their research. Therefore, members have also posed the question of: how to teach entrepreneurship to academics? Another case involves mixed founding teams of academics and students with ventures that may or may not involve university intellectual property. Members shared challenges arising from a lack of clarity within their institutions on what are the differences and common elements of research commercialisation and entrepreneurship support .  And on ‘who’ owns ‘what’ in university-based enterprise development (e.g., sweat equity, university resources, joint ventures, etc.).

Many challenges remain

To respond to the challenges, CoP members proposed a list of ideas for collaborative Aspect network projects and topics for knowledge-sharing workshops during early internal meetings carried out in 2019-20 (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Aspect Entrepreneurship CoP: Ideas for what we might do, 2019-20



While the CoP has had an opportunity to explore a number of the early ideas and proposals (Figure 1), at the same time, many challenges remain. Remaining challenges include, but are not limited to, the following.

  • Do students from the social sciences tend to found different types of businesses or entities and if so, how can they best be supported in these diverse pathways? Relatedly, is social science entrepreneurship defined by certain methodology or is entrepreneurship multidisciplinary by nature? For example, is social enterprise necessarily social science-based? Clarity on these questions will help members to develop more relevant support and programming for the social sciences.
  • How to ensure that programming looks after the best interests of students and provides a safe space for students to develop confidence to own their failures? Some member discussed a need to explore solutions as a CoP to look after best interests of students such as generating rules to ensure that students are not being exploited through internships, intrapreneurship, joint venturing, etc. On failures, some members suggested developing a library of case studies or stories on failure and developing best practice for CoP members on how to best communicate messages of failure in a way that is constructive to students’ personal and professional development
  • What are the differences and common elements of research commercialisation and entrepreneurship support and relatedly, who owns what in university-based enterprise development? Having more clarity on ‘who’ owns ‘what’ e.g., sweat equity, university resources, joint ventures, etc. has important implications for university entrepreneurship hubs that are typically operating with very small teams and a limited budget.

To addressing remaining challenges, CoP members have developed a list of new projects for possible support as well as ideas for potential think pieces (see Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Aspect Entrepreneurship CoP: Ideas for what we might do next, 2021




Conclusion

Just a few months after the initial internal Aspect Entrepreneurship CoP meeting where members convened to share key challenges faced in engaging and supporting the social sciences, the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged across the globe. The pandemic and associated lockdowns meant that members had to quickly adapt not only how and what they deliver in their own entrepreneurship support programmes, but also how the CoP would operate. With the overnight change to remote work and zooms, digital support provision became a regular topic of conversation among members. The virtual format of the CoP knowledge sharing workshops has translated into more topics being covered than originally planned, while members have also had additional opportunities to continue the conversation around challenges and have re-prioritised what challenges to cover over the course of Aspect. With many challenges remaining, the CoP is looking forward to the next phase of Aspect where members will collaborate to launch new projects and applied research to further advance the best practice and knowledge base around social science entrepreneurship.





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