Meet Dr Leila Alinaghian, Senior Lecturer and course director of the MSc in Management within Cranfield School of Management
Leila Alinaghian

“Social impact is one of the remaining competitive advantages that is available to businesses – and in many ways it’s the ultimate competitive advantage.”

Dr Alinaghian’s research looks at social impact and explores why corporates and social enterprises should work together for their mutual benefit to challenge misconceptions, overcome barriers and create opportunities for collaboration.

Can you tell us a little about your role within Cranfield School of Management, and what your research covers?

“My job mainly consists of three parts: research, teaching and directorship. My research revolves around social impact and seeks to advance the scholarship and understanding of managing business relationships and networks for impact. I'm quite engaged in the school’s PhD and DBA programme, supervising students, and sitting on doctoral review panels. I also deliver lectures and lead modules on several School of Management and University postgraduate and executive development programmes. I teach inter-organisational relationships and procurement, social network analysis, and social impact. Finally, I am the director of the MSc in Management, responsible for the success, wellbeing, and overall experience of the students on the course. I really enjoy working with students throughout the year, seeing them grow and develop into confident learners and leaders that can go out and make a positive impact in the world, which I think is very much needed at present. I think that's one of the most satisfying things about managing a course – you become part of the students’ journey.”

What drew you to this area of research?

“I’ve always had a passion for social impact and advocacy. I love the idea of making the world a fairer and more compassionate place and, at the personal level, of changing lives. In our communities and globally, we are surrounded by social problems such as mental health, inequality, homelessness, reoffending, and mass migration – you hear the sad stories in the news every day. These conditions are problems for society and require society to react to them and find remedies, but I think, historically, there has been a belief that they are best left to the Government or charities to solve. However, I think that's starting to change. Businesses have begun to take a lead role in addressing these complex, multi-layered global social challenges, and are increasingly trying to bring about a positive impact on the planet and the communities in which they are operating. As part of this, they are starting to engage in new practices, one of which is social procurement. Social procurement is when corporates use their buying or spending power to generate social value beyond the value of goods and services that are being procured. The practice involves corporates buying from organisations that are specifically set up to address a strong social problem or challenge. We call these social enterprises. They have a social mission at their heart, such as to eradicate poverty, or to support people who have experienced homelessness to be able to move forward in their life, but they use business to solve their chosen societal challenge. They are businesses that apply market solutions to social problems. For me, working in this area enabled me to combine my passion for social impact and making the world a better place, with my passion for understanding businesses and business relationships.”

How do social enterprises work?

“As an example, there’s a coffee company in London, Change Please, that recruits homeless people, provides them with employment and training, supports them with housing, and employs them to sell coffee. For me, that is a really clever model, because of the added value on top of the product or service that you buy. NEMI Teas is another example. They recruit refugees, with no questions asked, because it is a common challenge that refugees struggle to find a job because they don’t have any work experience in the UK. By giving them their first job, the company is helping them to integrate into society. So, each social enterprise has a social mission at the heart of the business, but they try to combine it with market logic by selling products and services that we need. That sets them apart from the charity sector because they are not fundraising or relying on donations. By integrating social causes into the economy, and the products and services we buy in our everyday lives, there’s potential to make a real impact.”

Why is this so relevant to businesses right now?

“I think social problems have become more relevant for businesses in the last five years or so because they have started to disrupt the ecosystem in which they operate. It has become more and more apparent that the world is experiencing multiple crises – a global pandemic, social injustice, and climate change. These create division in society. In particular, the Covid-19 pandemic exposed inequalities of race, gender, and disability. Against this backdrop, corporates need to start to rethink value creation. Social impact is one of the remaining competitive advantages that's available to businesses – and in many ways it’s the ultimate competitive advantage. Stories of companies that have embraced and improved their social impact outpacing and outperforming their competitors have started to emerge, so there is also a motivation for businesses to use this as a competitive advantage. That's perhaps why the movement is gaining speed. The other thing is a rise in corporate employee activism and consumer activism, driven by the new generation, demanding businesses move in this direction. Employee activism is on the rise; people are increasingly aware of social inequality and climate change and how their companies contribute to it. The new generation are unwilling to turn a blind eye, which is creating another push for businesses to move in this direction.”

What have you been working on lately?

“In 2016, Social Enterprise UK launched the Buy Social Corporate Challenge, which brings together a group of high-profile businesses to collectively spend £1 billion with social enterprises. They started with seven and now they have almost 30 businesses signed up to the challenge, representing a wide range of industries. Recently, Social Enterprise UK asked Cranfield and another business school, ESCP, to evaluate the progress of the social procurement movement in the UK and the impact of the Buy Social initiative now it is in year five. Compiling the report was really interesting, because I was able to speak to both corporates who've made the commitment to make Buy Social work, and the social enterprises that have been selling their products and services to these corporates. In learning about their experiences, we’ve explored the different developmental stages these movements have gone through and considered how we can move them forward. The three stages we identified are create, build, and grow. What is interesting is that, at each stage of development, you see both corporate buyers and social enterprises playing their unique role to make it work – it’s a collective effort. For example, in stage one corporate buyers need to create shared intention within their organisation, while social enterprises need to create the demand. Both need to shape the dialogue and articulate the benefits of co-operation. This is where case studies and events that expose employees to social enterprise products and events are helpful.”

What do you hope the impact will be on organisations?

“If you look at the average spend of a FTSE 100 company on corporate social responsibility, the budget is around £10 million per year. But the average annual procurement spend of a FTSE 100 company is around £4 billion. These companies have fantastic buying power, and they make decisions every day about the products and services they choose. The social movement is pretty advanced in the UK, but not so much across Europe, and there are lots of different labels for social enterprise. I’d like to see a unified platform and terminology, and I’m hoping to develop a maturity framework to assess the effectiveness of current practices adopted by corporates and to support them in establishing what capability they require to drive up their levels of social spend and expand their efforts. I hope to support corporates in their transition into being impactful and purpose-led by offering a taxonomy of institutional work. By institutional work, I mean purposeful actions of professionals or organisations that are aimed at creating and disrupting norms and practices, because this requires a lot of mindset and value change. The procurement function is historically very much cost-focused – you want to get the best possible deal and the lowest price. The focus is on quality and risk. But this is a new way of thinking about things. I want to break down preconceptions, such as the belief that social enterprise is more expensive, or that the quality is not as good as other suppliers. There can be stigma attached to some of the causes they support, for example if you want to bring the homeless into your corporate to serve coffee to your employees. I want to explore how we can work together to break down these barriers and misconceptions. One corporate I’ve worked with did a reverse mentoring scheme where they paired up a senior executive with an ex-offender who was working in a social enterprise. It was interesting for the executive to see how resilient ex-offenders can be in getting back on their feet, and it also showed the ex-offender that corporate senior executives can be open and non-judgemental. I’m hoping to help more corporates engage in those kinds of practices to advance the movement.”

What are the possibilities for the future in relation to social procurement?

“That's a really good question. I think we have witnessed remarkable progress from businesses. The next level is to diffuse the social procurement initiative even further, implementing initiatives that take it to the next level. For example, you can set specific spend targets at the corporate, category, or individual level, for spending with social enterprises. I think there's something, also, about building a community of practice, where you share, promote, and standardise best practices. For example, one of the current challenges for those wanting to demonstrate social impact is the variety of impact frameworks that are used by corporate partners and social enterprises. In order to drive greater scale, we need opportunities to integrate sometimes competing social and environmental agendas. We also need to use consistent language. Finally, we need to develop the social enterprise supply base. Social enterprises have grown considerably in recent years, both in size and variety, but I think we need efforts to fully utilise the corporate market. We need to reduce the capacity and capability gap. Perhaps that looks like working with corporate partners and social enterprises to conduct sector-specific opportunity gap analysis. So, what are categories where we're missing a social enterprise, or where there is not enough capacity to serve the corporate world?”

Why did you choose to work at Cranfield?

“I think Cranfield is a very unique place. It was set up to solve a problem – to bring people who had had military experience back into the workplace and prepare them for the peacetime economy. So, it was set off to engage. I really like the mission of Cranfield and it’s something you would see in our practice anyway. The fact that we’re a postgraduate university means we have a smaller, more specialised audience than perhaps the majority of universities, and that's attractive to me, as it gives us focus. I think what I like about the school of management is their focus on individual and personal development. There's always this big emphasis on developing students as individuals; they are constantly encouraged to reflect and engage in that self-reflection journey. I love the fact that we're very close to industry. It's very much that applied research mentality – you do something to make the world a better place and have an impact. That's really powerful. I think we have a very entrepreneurial culture as well – that's something that distinguishes us. It's observable among colleagues – you see that sense of ownership and urgency among faculty and professional services, that willingness to try new things, the appetite for faster growth.”

What is your favourite part of your job?

“The best thing about this job that you never get bored, because there are no two days the same. I really enjoy that variety, and the pace of the job gets me excited every morning. When it comes to research, I enjoy the freedom to work on topics I'm truly passionate about, as well as being able to see the impact of my work on people and businesses. Before joining Cranfield, I was heavily focused on research, having completed my MPhil and PhD in manufacturing engineering at Cambridge. But it was at Cranfield that I fell in love with and discovered my passion for teaching. We believe in co-creation of knowledge, so we combine reflections and conversations around the room to create insights that cannot be created on their own. We actively involve students in the learning process; we don't see it as a one-way knowledge transfer. That makes each learning and teaching experience unique; you teach the same subject, but no two classes are the same, because people are different, and their reflections and insights are different. I also love directorship. It's really satisfying to be part of the student journey and it's wonderful to see how much they grow and develop. They may not realise it, but it's incredible how much they change during the course – it’s really inspiring.”

Do you have any advice to offer potential students who are thinking of coming to Cranfield to study management?

“I would advise them to use it as a platform to embrace and develop their capabilities. If you ask any Cranfield alumni, what is it about this place that makes it special, I think they would say it’s the focus on the individual and the fact that they come out of the self-reflection journey so aware of themselves, not just who they are and what is it that they want to do, but how they impact other people. I think it's really powerful. So, use it as a platform to embrace your capabilities, be true to yourself, and develop. What you learn about yourself and your passions, and the friends you make along the way, can make it a real life-changing experience. I’d say to them to just come in with an open mind to learn and have your perspective challenged and come ready to challenge even your own preconceptions and engage in discussion. Be prepared not to just be taught management, but also to do it – I think that's really important. For example, on the MSc in Management, students do a three-month internship where they put into practice what they’ve learned throughout the course. I’d also say to them to be ready to be an active part in a community. I always say to students that, on the course and at Cranfield more widely, we are a big family. Families support, they argue, they fight, they cry, they laugh, but they never fall apart. You’ll become part of this community, and we expect you to play an active part from day one when you join, and after you leave as well.”

And finally, what do you do when you’re not working?

“I love music. I sing and play the piano. I love theatre and art as well. I used to paint, but I don't get much time to do it at the moment. I'm an impressionist, so I’m a big fan of Monet. For this reason, I really love spending time in museums in London. I like impressionism because it allows you to express your perceptions of nature, rather than to create exact representations. I think it’s important to have hobbies. It’s difficult to find time sometimes but I think exploring a different side really helps you to stay balanced, which helps you be creative and do your job even better.”