“The challenge is that very few of us have a mandate to be the people to join things up.”
By Paksy Plackis-Cheng
Dr. Mairi Mackay heads the Global Social Enterprise program for the British Council. The British Council is the United Kingdom (UK)’s organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities. The organization is active in more than 100 countries. Mairi is engaged with introducing the British Council’s efforts to build more sustainable, inclusive, and prosperous societies worldwide. She shares her experiences from social enterprise and the drivers that propelled the UK to become the leader of a social economy.
How did the UK become a leader in social entrepreneurship?
In the UK there is a history of thinking about business as part of society. There have been a series of events that took place policywise in the last two decades. One of the reasons the UK became a strong leader globally are the preexisting ecosystems for an economy that supports social enterprise or social investment.
What core thinking led to that?
There has always been a political agenda in the UK. There’s an understanding that social enterprises are good for the economy and good for people. Especially when you have a creative entrepreneurial spirit that recognizes the importance of different solutions addressing social problems.
The other part is that lots of the universities are very much engaged with and understand social enterprises. It is not just as a way of teaching particular ways of business, but it is much more a philosophy of thinking about how embedding concerns for your society is integral to its development.
This is not unique to the UK, but it is certainly strong in the UK. More and more young people care very deeply about doing something that is meaningful. There is a sense of urgency around this area of impact and purposeful work.
What have you seen in the education landscape that supports building for-profit and for-purpose businesses?
In terms of the British Council, we’ve worked with an organization called the Social Enterprise Academy that’s based in Scotland. We developed content to look at how you would bring social enterprise into schools’ curricula. That’s something that we’ve seen being picked up globally. There are hundreds of thousands of school children around the world that are now looking at this area of social enterprise.
It’s about presenting young people a different perspective. Depending on which country you’re in, you’re dealing with very different education systems. You’re dealing with very different legacy views of what success should be, what economy is, and what good choices are for young people.
Jack Ma, co-founder of Alibaba Group was talking at the World Economic Forum about educating children values, understanding, compassion, and creativity. There is a whole renaissance of meeting the social enterprise movement in different ways in different countries. That to me is the heart of it; that’s where it all starts.
There are interesting things happening in terms of universities setting up incubator spaces, and how they collaborate with other intermediary organizations in the social economy. It feels like there’s a big laboratory for experimenting and thinking quite openly about what this all means. Ultimately it is about ideas. What do we mean by industry? What do we mean by economy? What is success going to look like?
We have to redefine all that, right?
Exactly. On the one hand it’s incredibly exciting, because there are so many great things happening. On the other hand, it’s quite daunting, because ultimately, we’re still hitting against all views: how economies work, what success looks like, what value is, and how we measure things.
The British Council’s Global Social Enterprise program is active in 30 countries. In general, what do social enterprises look like in Asia versus Africa, and North America?
These are general statements. In Asia, you have a particular focus on rapid economic development and dynamism. There is a real embrace of ideas and social enterprises as a way of thinking about economic development to address significant issues in those countries. This approach provides entrepreneurship opportunities, along with quite an open approach. In terms of the British Council’s perspective, East and South Asia is where we have made the most progress. The focus has been to facilitate a lot of government-to-government dialogues and to see various forms of legislation.
In the last couple of years we’ve seen a big shift in Africa. There’s a very interesting story around youth, employment, and entrepreneurship from a slightly different perspective. A big part of the challenge is not getting lost in our ideas of what we need to do and describe things as definitionally. We have to maintain a focus on what is really going to make an impact there.
There are lots of discussions between the UK and the U.S.; not only how we describe a social enterprise, but ultimately the whole point is to try to make the world a better place.
From an outsider’s perspective, what are your suggestions to drive social entrepreneurship in the United States further?
There is a very interesting conversation happening around ideas of impact investment. In the U.S., investing is a very strong narrative as is the idea of social entrepreneurship. Because of the strength and the legacy of entrepreneurship, some people argue a lot about the ideas of social enterprise versus social entrepreneurship. In the U.S., there are some quite rigid views around what we mean by scale, what we mean by return on investment and social investment; these perceptions do not invite a wider conversation.
This is absolutely something we’re seeing in the U.S. and the UK and other developed economies. What we mean by developed and developing these days is inequality. Choice and voice are all part of a conversation of economy and maybe of feeling included.
How people feel part of a society begins largely due to economic inequality. That economic inequality then feeds a whole of other senses of inequality.
The social enterprise or investment movement can sometimes become a little myopic. A lot of things have happened since the financial crisis—social enterprises are not part of a niche movement anymore. It has an opportunity to be a much bolder leader of real systems change. What needs to come next is that systems piece, both within particular countries and economies, but also globally. Ultimately, we need to readdress some quite big rules.
Systems change is critical, because all social enterprise is wonderful. But if we’re not addressing the financial system, on a macro level, we’ll still be dealing with a capital system that is not supportive of a regenerative economy. How can we make that shift?
I don’t think we are making that shift. I’m going back to thinking about three very basic but fundamental levels:
First, helping young people think about what we mean by economy and our ideas, values and philosophies around all of this.
The solutions part is an example of policy instruments that can change things. We are not short of examples here at all.
The third part is the systems bit. That’s where we’re not innovating, because we don’t quite know how to move from one level to another. This is partly because we get so caught up in trying to protect the space. We are not prepared to risk that space being too fluid in order for us to experiment.
What needs to happen? What are the steps in reorganizing the systems bit?
Once I figure out that, I’ll let you know. [Laughter.]
What is one of the drivers that would form the foundation for change?
I think shared commitment is huge. That can be about convening the right people, who then commit to a space for their peers to do something different. For example, we launched a partnership with United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and Pacific (UN ESCAP) last February, which brought together and worked with ministers and policy makers from across Eastern South Asia.
There are great examples of what different countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region have done. You hope they come together and create a sense of what this means for the world. How do we start to learn from one another?
My Ph.D. is in collaboration. Every single conference I go to that’s in any way connected to an impact space, we talk about the importance of collaborating. But talking about it and actually doing it— committing the platforms and systems and incentives to do it—are not the same thing. We need to do that part.
What is the challenge in doing that part—collaborating?
The challenge is that very few of us have a mandate to be the people to join things up. You need to come together and do the work to create new mandates, or you need to offer yourself, find the mandate and be that person who’s going to take that leadership role and the risk that come with it; otherwise, we are not going to shift conversations.
In their everyday lives, how can people be more exposed to these efforts and then to help make systems change?
We’re having an interesting conversation with GSG, a global steering group for social investment, which was a G8 Task Force. You create tipping points and mainstream ideas of social investment. What does that look like in terms of getting into the minds of people? I am thinking about arts and culture as a way of bringing these ideas to life. That’s also another component list, which involves thinking slightly outside the box in terms of how do we make this matter. The work that you’re doing is huge in this space. I feel very strongly that once we start systematizing stories and where they have gone, it will put some weight to this.
At the moment, even with the best in the world and our international development agencies, you cannot base investigating conversations on supporting beneficiaries. We still have very complex theories of change and ways of deciding whether or not we think something works and then whether it’s going to get resourced. We need to find ways of making it legitimate to ask people what works for them and to take their word for it.
I feel strongly about featuring avenues for people and businesses that are more supportive of people and the planet. You studied economics. What are these issues for you?
En route to studying business and economics, I fell pregnant with my older son and became a single parent. I guess life felt quite real.
I was fortunate enough to start working for Scotland’s economic development agency. Then I was put in touch with the head of HR at Scottish Enterprise, which is the executive of the development agencies in Scotland. They were looking at corporate entrepreneurship.
There were two strong narratives at that time in Scotland. One was thinking about futures. We set out scenarios about the haves and the have-nots, which seemed a bit ludicrous 20 years ago, but have absolutely become the stories of today.
Then there was also a very strong focus on what you’ve described as “inclusive economic development,” thinking about communities and people. Because of my own personal circumstances, these issues really resonated with me.
I was involved in a small team looking at developing a diaspora network for Scotland. That involved thinking about how you network people, but in quite a focused way, to create resources and support for Scottish companies, and to bring people into thinking more strategically about how Scotland develops its industries. I ultimately managed that project for five years, and it became a really successful program.
I have always been passionate about understanding collaboration and networks and taking an inclusive approach. I went to run the Scottish government’s trade and investment agency in China. And China is a very different market in terms of an emerging economy.
What did you learn in China?
I learned to trust the idea of creating collaborative platforms, because you didn’t have the same black-and-white trade and investment agenda. The rules were very, very different. You have these absolutely huge Chinese corporations that didn’t exist ten years ago but are now the number five energy companies in the world.
The logic that we always apply in terms of what success looks like doesn’t ring true. It is completely different in China; the scale is also different. I was working for Scotland in China and Scotland’s population is within margin of error of the Chinese population. [Laughs.]
A big part of Scotland’s story was the strength of its universities and its industries, which still stack up with a story in China, but not if you use the numbers. We have ten universities. The Chinese are like, “Well, we have ten universities just in one corner of this one city.” You’re thinking differently about what value is and how you create opportunities in ways that are not at all transactional, but very collaborative actually.
We can all encourage moving young adults away from traditional jobs and economy, but as long as society is measuring success the traditional way and compensate in a certain way, what is your advice for young adults while the world is in transition?
Some of them will be more naturally comfortable with becoming social entrepreneurs young. There’s a lot of support out there to do that and to find different ways to engage and setting up their own social businesses, networking with each other and other organizations.
There is probably more that we can all do in terms of providing mentoring or access to internships or giving short-term opportunities to work inside of something. You forget how much you have to unlearn, or how you gain confidence at these different points in time.
One of the things that has happened within the last couple of years is even more polarization. A lot of young people are issue-based, but essentially, they’re being entrepreneurial. They’re saying this is not okay and it needs to change. There are a lot of adults deciding to find ways to tell them to shut up.
It is to maintain their power, right?
Correct. I think that’s genuinely an issue across the board with any social change, whether it’s in an economic space or more general. Those of us who are passionate about it have to take care of younger people and find ways to make sure that they are supported, even if that’s just through acknowledgment.
What is a supportive message to young adults?
There’s a strong message around following your own truth. Which is a very important part of what we’re talking about, in terms of educating young people and this idea of internal and external drivers.
We all need approval, but if we teach people to have very strong internal drivers, a lot of things would self-correct. A lot of what we’re seeing at the moment as being incredibly dysfunctional and very difficult to redress is because people have not been given strong internal drivers, and they don’t know where to find it.
What’s next for you?
We have our Global Social Enterprise program, and I’m also taking on responsibility for our Global Creative Economy program. The DICE program, which is developing inclusive and creative economies, is focusing on five countries: Brazil, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Africa, and Egypt. It’s going to be a case for a slightly wider view of social and creative economy. Those five nations will be looking into youth unemployment and gender inequality. It’s an opportunity for us to scale that and create a stronger narrative that is resonating.
Even Netflix is recognizing creative economy and culture, which was not the case two years ago. I would like to be able to use these next years to tell a stronger story. For me there are three messages I’d like to get across:
– First, the economics of empowerment. Ultimately we are talking about how people have a level of choice in their life and make decisions about how to take care of their families, community, country, and planet.
– Second, emotion in the current economic existence. We need to get comfortable talking about being heart-based. What really matters to people? How do people connect? How do you prioritize that and encourage that?
– And then elevation. How do we move things up? We need to be shifting to the next level. If we have to get to a point where everyone agrees, we’re not going to do anything. Let’s do what we do generously in a way where we are supporting one another.
 A law which requires public authorities to consider economic, social, and environmental well-being in connection with public service contracts.