Utrecht University: Niels Bosma appointed as professor of Social Entrepreneurship

Niels Bosma external linkhas been appointed as professor of Social Entrepreneurship at the Utrecht University School of Economics (U.S.E.), Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance as of 1 November 2021. In his chair, he wants to focus mainly on the social entrepreneurship ecosystem. He also aims to develop an ‘undercurrent’ of social entrepreneurship in education. ‘I am firmly convinced that a change in mentality among (future) leaders in business is the key to tackling the challenges our society faces,’ says Bosma.

‘Social entrepreneurship is about identifying, developing and exploiting opportunities to solve social problems in an entrepreneurial way. In doing so, it plays an important role in shifting the emphasis from financial value capture for entrepreneurs and managers, to broader value creation for society,’ says Niels Bosma. ‘Financial values are an important aspect, but for social entrepreneurs they are more of a means to an end than the other way around. We must pay much more attention to this in our system. At the same time, it is clear that business strategies aimed at value creation not only require a viable business model to become successful, but also need a stimulating (local) environment.’

Niels Bosma

Besides his position as professor in the field of Social Entrepreneurship, Niels Bosma is Director of Studies at the Utrecht University School of Economics, co-founder and coordinator of the Utrecht University Social Entrepreneurship Initiative external linkand member of the Utrecht Centre for Entrepreneurship external link.

Bosma holds a PhD in Economic Geography from Utrecht University and a Master’s in Econometrics from the University of Groningen. Before coming to Utrecht University, Niels worked at London Business School, EIM Business and Policy Research (now part of the Panteia Group), and Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR).

He was also a member of GECES, an expert group advising the European Commission on activities related to their Social Business Initiative, for six years and, as an independent academic member, was part of the SER committee that advised the Dutch government on social entrepreneurship in 2015.

In addition, Bosma is on the board of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) and is also Senior Research Advisor there. He was also research director of GEM and co-author of several GEM Global Reports between 2006 and 2021.

The ecosystem for social entrepreneurship

‘Actually, it would be better if we didn’t need to use the term ‘social entrepreneurship’. Many entrepreneurs actually have a social objective, or try to make a social contribution in their business operations. The current economic system, however, is still primarily geared to maximising financial value, which means that important values such as inclusion, sustainability and self-esteem are pushed aside.

Partly for this reason, I think it is good that the university recognises the importance of social entrepreneurship. But this must be done at several levels. Within the research of my chair, I would therefore like to focus primarily on the ecosystem for social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship can manifest itself in various ways. It can, for example, also mean that companies not directly associated with social entrepreneurship, start up new initiatives or collaborate with social entrepreneurs,’ says Niels Bosma. ‘Another good example is the national City Deal on Impact Entrepreneurship external link. Quite a few governments are involved in this, both nationally and locally, but also other players in the ecosystem.

Where the government, companies or NGOs leave social problems unresolved, social entrepreneurs tackle them on a small scale and experiment with possible solutions. If the business model works well, such companies can scale up, but impact can also be achieved by allowing others to adopt their practices, or by ensuring that the proposed solutions are internalized more widely by the government.

Social entrepreneurs have an eye for blind spots and often come up with the first solutions

Niels Bosma
Niels Bosma
‘I am convinced that a change in mentality among (future) leaders in business is the key to tackling the challenges our society faces,’ says Bosma. ‘When you ask yourself how successful you are, you should not look at how much you earn or add to your organisation, but at what you contribute to others. Social entrepreneurship is a bottom-up mechanism to make that possible. Moreover, social entrepreneurs have an eye for blind spots and often come up with the first solutions. Local governments in particular are interested in working with social entrepreneurs because, since the major decentralisations after 2015, responsibilities have shifted to the municipalities, while their budgets did not increase. So they are also forced to look at other solutions.’

A challenge that has hampered theory development in academic knowledge generation is the notorious lack of large-scale, international comparative data on social entrepreneurship. ‘Earlier, we have made a contribution with an additional module in the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor questionnaire, As of this year, I have been involved in the European Social Enterprise Monitor external link, a survey that is supported by the European Commission and is set out in 21 European countries. This new data collection will enrich our understanding of (successful) social entrepreneurship in different local contexts.’

Prioritizing your contribution to society over profit-maximization
‘Education is an important element of my chair,’ says Bosma. ‘I would like to develop an ‘undercurrent’ of social entrepreneurship in which the contribution to society comes first, not the quest for personal gain. If you talk to social entrepreneurs, you notice that this is precisely what they are all about – and that entrepreneurship is their way of doing this.

Of course, we are already working on that. We have a minor in social entrepreneurship, last year we started a master’s programme in Business and Social Impact external link, next year we will start a master’s in Sustainable Finance & Investment and we have also developed a course for professionals in the field of social entrepreneurship external link. The main focus there is on how social entrepreneurs can organise their businesses to improve or scale up their operations. That is what they are looking for.

If you really want to make an impact, you will have to create a profitable business model

Niels Bosma
Niels Bosma
Because let’s not lose sight of that either: the entrepreneurial component is important. If you really want to make an impact, you cannot depend on volunteers or donations alone. You will have to create a profitable business model, so that you can reinvest and expand your initiative. Or ensure, based on a solid business model, that others are able to take over and scale up its potential to create value for society.

Tony’s Chocolonely (alongside ABN Amro and Van Doorne a societal partner in our Social Entrepreneurship Initiative) is a very good example. One of their pillars is: ‘act to inspire others’. They want to show that they are a profitable company that does business in a different way and, in doing so, send a signal to other major players in the cacao value chain. By keeping a close eye to your own social outcomes and communicating them in a transparent way, you can include other key actors in your mission, values and standards, but also in the organisation of your company. This automatically results in interactions with other players in the ecosystem, which hopefully takes the movement to the targeted next level.’

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