Entrepreneurs seeking to combine profit-making with social purpose need more backing to develop and grow their companies, a report from Cranfield School of Management has found.

An occasional paper published by the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility in its 10th anniversary year found so-called ‘sustainable enterprises’ were in need of wider support networks, better access to affordable development resources and help to identify and target like-minded potential employees and investors.

The paper, entitled “How Sustainable Enterprises Develop”, reports that sustainable entrepreneurs are far from being simply a niche group of commercially-viable businesses founded and led by individuals with a strong sense of societal purpose who will remain outside the mainstream. It suggests sustainable entrepreneurs could represent an emerging fundamental change in why and how businesses are created and developed, but that this will only happen if the Government, the public sector and both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors unite in support of their efforts.

‘Sustainable enterprises’ are those that focus on creating both societal and business value, integrating profit with purpose as a single idea.

Professor David Grayson CBE, Director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility and co-author of the report, said: “Our research into the journeys of sustainable entrepreneurs shows that there is considerable potential for growing enterprises with social, as well as commercial, purpose. To achieve this goal will require ‘joined up’ collaboration among not-for-profit organisations that are already promoting business with purpose (such as B Lab UK, Business in the Community, Blueprint for Better Business, Tomorrow’s Company and Responsible Business), Government, public sector organisations already supporting enterprise development, and responsible businesses (including B Corporations as well as large, established companies) that are leading by example.”

The paper’s research team spoke to 24 sustainable entrepreneurs about how and why their business was started, what had helped and hindered the development of the business to date, their long-term hopes and aspirations for the business, and their advice to others wishing to follow their example.

Doughty Centre Associate Melody McLaren, who led the research, noted that the interviews revealed a general pattern of drivers and/or triggers that had led each individual to become a sustainable entrepreneur. Drivers included ongoing personal circumstances such as working in a family business, while trigger events included changes in employment or health status, as well as personal epiphanies.

She added: “While our interviewees displayed many of the attributes held by commercial entrepreneurs – including self-belief, resilience, passion, persistence and patience – we also picked up a number of characteristics that we believe are specific to the start-up and development of sustainable enterprises. These include coherence of commercial and societal purpose, authenticity of personal purpose, relevance to all key stakeholders, dynamism in building and leveraging social and intellectual as well as financial capital, and a focus on the sustainability of the enterprise over time.”

As well as cost savings and operational efficiencies, the entrepreneurs interviewed considered the benefits of running a sustainable enterprise to include better recruitment and retention of people, improved reputation and greater influence in their sector or geographical area.

But, in order to develop their business further, they identified a need for:

  • Peer-to-peer networking events with other sustainable entrepreneurs to enable them to make contacts, share stories, and promote knowledge exchange and resource-sharing
  • Access to more affordable courses for business growth/development and general management
  • Support to identify and connect with potential new recruits
  • Access to mentors who have started and grown their own business
  • Networking events with potential sustainable investors.

The Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility is celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2017, while Cranfield School of Management marks its 50th anniversary this year.

Notes for editors

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