Training the entrepreneurs who are changing the world

Social entrepreneurs are people who start companies not primarily to make money, but to make the world better. Their learning is the focus of a new PhD thesis.

Duncan Levinsohn has been working with a Sida-supported organisation that organises short and intensive courses – so-called accelerators – for social entrepreneurs. He has studied how social entrepreneurs’ learning develops in accelerators – and the impact it has on participants’ enterprises.

Many scientists have to wait for years before their research is put to practical use. But Duncan was able to see immediate results, since the design of each new accelerator was based on the results of his research.

“I would interview the participants on Friday and be expected to report by the following Wednesday”, says Duncan. “It was challenging but great fun! I also had an ongoing dialogue with accelerator staff. At times they questioned my findings – or added to them, and that is of course is much better than publishing a lot of nonsense.”

Entrepreneurs are practical people who often learn by testing ideas. Nonetheless, a significant proportion still do some kind of training in entrepreneurship. However, most research on entrepreneurs’ learning topic focuses on their learning as they start their own businesses. Only a handful of researchers have looked at the learning of entrepreneurs in accelerators and Duncan is one of the first to focus on the learning of social entrepreneurs.

“Our welfare costs more and more, and the world is facing major social and environmental challenges. That makes social entrepreneurs increasingly important in society, and so it is crucial that we understand what makes their enterprises succeed and how they learn”, he says.

For three years Duncan studied the experiences of twenty-four social entrepreneurs who participated in three different accelerators. He has looked at what happens during and after the programme - and at how social entrepreneurs’ enterprises developed. Nonetheless, his main focus has been on the learning process.

“What I have come to understand is that learning in an accelerator is something we create together”, says Duncan. “Starting out I thought that I would find the perfect educational setup, but then I realized it is impossible. Each participant brings their own expectations, background and plans. That makes each course different, even if the design of the accelerator stays about the same.”

Duncan is particularly interested in social entrepreneurs operating in emerging economies. The entrepreneurs who participated in the accelerators he studied came from all parts of the world. They had very different backgrounds, ranging from former child soldiers to senior managers. This gave rise to fruitful interaction and at times, even conflict, and Duncan comments that he was often moved by participants’ stories.

“This type of research engages the heart!”

Duncan Levinsohn successfully defended his thesis No Entrepreneur is an Island: An Exploration of Social Entrepreneurial Learning in Accelerators on June 5 at Jönköping International Business School.

Link to the thesis