Paula Woodman On The Need For Systemic Change & How Social Enterprise Is Booming


Paula Woodman is the Head of the Global Social Enterprise portfolio at the British Council which seeks to support ecosystems for a thriving impact economy in over 30 countries. Paula has worked in this area for 20 years and is now a leading and influential global influencer for a more impact driven economy.

Paula co-authored the flagship British Council report “Think Global Trade Social – How business with a social purpose can deliver more sustainable development” which launched in partnership with the World Bank Group to coincide with the signing of the Sustainable Development Goals. Other reports she has led on include “Activist to Entrepreneur – the role of social enterprise in supporting women’s empowerment” which she launched at the European Development Days conference; and “Global City Challenges: the creative and social economy solution” which she led in partnership with the Global Parliament of Mayors.

Paula is a member of the Social Enterprise World Forum Board as well as being a key member of the steering group for ‘The Future of the Corporation’ research and engagement programme from the British Academy. Previously she co-founded a UK-wide social enterprise and led as a Director at a social enterprise infrastructure organisation.


Paula shares her deep experience working in the social enterprise sector across a number of countries, providing advice for social entrepreneurs and ways to help the ecosystem develop further.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the social enterprise sector?

[Paula Woodman] - Of course. I think the topic of inequality has always been of interest to me. My parents actually emigrated from Ireland to the UK for jobs. And their upbringing was very meagre. They didn't have much education, and they came to the UK for opportunities. That story of the trials and tribulations of trying to find your way in the world was there as an interest for me from the word go.

I was also very affected by the famines in the '80s happening in Africa, which were very big news stories in the UK, where I grew up. And that led me to go and live in Africa in 1997. One of the surprising outcomes of that trip was actually not just reflecting on the subsistence lifestyle and how it really robs dignity from people, but also, on the other hand, that these communities that I was living in in Africa, they were so rich. Their sense of identity, their connections with each other, their connections with nature. They had social capital in abundance, and perhaps in a way that, in the UK, we were losing.

Paula working in Tanzania in 1997.

Paula working in Tanzania in 1997.

I actually returned to the UK from Africa at Christmas time, and it really brought into very sharp focus the commercial pressures that we live in, and that sometimes the special role for family and friends, and that social capital, was perhaps under threat.

I think it was a quite straightforward jump for me to to become quite focused on this.

I studied economics, and really realised that we need a systemic change for both the more developed economies, and for those economies that have been left behind. We will need to work out how to value things in our society, things that matter for our wellbeing, and for the future of our planet.

And the rest is history. I was scouring jobs pages, and found an advert simply for a network of community enterprises. That network's called Locality now, and it's still very active in the UK.

The idea of deprived communities running their own businesses, so that they could regenerate their areas their way, without waiting for donations or grants, I thought was just absolutely magic, and a complete shift in what I had learned as an economics student.

And it was a great time to be in the social enterprise movement in the UK. We had Tony Blair committing to social enterprise in his winning manifesto. And then, in 2000, we had the creation of UnLtd, the UK's foundation for social entrepreneurs. I've never left social enterprise since then. I've moved around, but it's in my blood, and I really believe, it's only through systemic change that we will create wellbeing in our world today.

Paula working in Tanzania in 1997.

Paula working in Tanzania in 1997.

That's an excellent point there, Paula, and one I completely agree with. And there's obviously a really strong tie in your studies and work experience, and life experience, to the role that you're doing now as Global Head of Social Enterprise at the British Council.

I'd love to hear a little bit more about this organisation, and the impact that it creates, and projects that you're involved in.

The surprising history of the British Council is that it was founded in 1934, which was a time of huge political tensions in the world. Actually, you may reflect on today's political tensions and our global issues as being not, in some ways, dissimilar points in time.

The British Council was set up because there was a belief that we needed friendly knowledge and understanding, globally, between people, people of the UK and people of other countries. That we needed to actually have a baseline of understanding and ability to get on, and appreciate each other's cultures.

That's very relevant today. We work in over 100 countries in fields such as the arts and culture, English language, education systems, and also in the area of society. We reach in the region of 75 million people directly with something like 758 million people, if you include online, broadcast and publication reach. It's an incredible organisation to work for, because the reach, the history, the reach, really brings something very special, including to the field of social enterprise.

In social enterprise, we use our insights at a local level. In about 30 countries, we're working on social enterprise, and the impact economy, and we use our insights from the local level to enable an exchange with UK practitioners, and with other countries. And whether that's at the policy level, or whether that's at the practitioner level, so for actual social entrepreneurs, it slightly varies depending on the shape of the programme, and the real opportunity in that country.

But some of the things we are achieving, we have a Social Enterprise in Schools program, and that program will reach 50,000 students by 2020 which is a really incredible number. In capacity building, we've been working with social entrepreneurs to build their capacity since about 2009, and we've trained in the region of 19,000 social entrepreneurs.

So, trying to help social entrepreneurs to be established, but also to reach scale, and to access impact investment.

We're also very committed in the field of research and reports, trying to build that evidence base that we need in order to get other partners onboard in pursuit of the impact economy. We've published over 35 reports to date in the impact economy space. Some of those are local mapping studies, but other studies are looking at issues such as women's empowerment and social enterprise, or how do education systems contribute to social enterprise.

So, yeah, that's the work that we're involved in.

There's a tonne of amazing projects there, and what an amazing amount of reach, Paula. It’s something you can certainly be proud of to be driving.

This year, the British Council are one of the key partners delivering the Social Enterprise World Forum, and that'll be held in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in October, and you're planning on bringing together over 1,200 people from around the globe.

I'm really interested to hear about what you're most looking forward to about this year's World Forum, and what the delegates can expect.

It's going to be absolutely incredible.

The first thing, really, to say, is that we're nearly sold out, so we only have about 200 tickets left for the Social Enterprise World Forum. So, for those who are interested, please do get your hands on one of those tickets soon.

I think it's going to be a really mind-blowing event. The theme is Local Traditions, Fresh Perspectives. We chose that because Ethiopia actually has a really long history of creating socially entrepreneurial approaches.

As I found when I've been travelling the world with the British Council, many communities have found solutions to their problems, and where there is an absence of finance, they have found entrepreneurial solutions to those problems.

And that's definitely the case in Ethiopia. It's a very strong, independent country. It's seen as a capital of Africa, because the Africa Union is based there, and other other such institutions, and it really is playing quite an important leadership role in the region. It's brilliant to actually highlight the role that social enterprise is playing there.

And let me tell you, the social enterprises there are thinking big. They're already achieving a huge amount, and that's without much of a supportive ecosystem. It really blows your mind when you're coming from somewhere like the UK, or the US, or maybe Australia, where there's more infrastructure available. There's some people who know what social enterprise is. There's some sorts of finance that you can maybe try to access for social enterprise.

These things really are in their infancy in Ethiopia. But irregardless, these social enterprises have found a way through, and it really does challenge us, I think, in terms of how ambitious we really are being.

The other thing to say is that this year will be the first time that the Social Enterprise World Forum will be held in a lower-income economy, and I think this is really strategically important for our whole movement.

We speak about inequality. We say that we are a different movement, that we want to connect and empower those who have been excluded, and this event offers that opportunity in spades, because we're going to be hearing from people making the change in a lower-income country.

We already have a good number of participants registered, as I say. We already have about a 1,000 registered, and they're from 56 countries.

This is going be a fantastic international melting pot for partnerships, for inspiration, and to grow our global movement. It's an event not to be missed.

Absolutely. It'll be great to see you over there this year, Paula. And in fact, it'll be great to be sitting in a plenary with you, which I'm very much looking forward to.

I'm keen to hear a little bit about how you've seen the social enterprise sector transform and change over the last five years or so, particularly with the sort of work that you've been doing. I'm sure there's some great insights there.

Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes things are said about social enterprise, and you wonder what the evidence is, so I'll start with some evidence.

I referred to our mapping studies that we have now done in about 20 countries. In those mapping studies, we chart social enterprises, asking them how long they've been around for, and how much they're growing. And this often means we're tracking back for five, 10 years, and you can see how many social enterprises have been set up more recently.

I can tell you from that real, hard evidence, social enterprise is absolutely booming in every country that we survey. We see the number that have been created five years ago, three years ago, two years ago, building all the time, up to a peak. It's a fantastic time to be in this movement.

I think the other thing we've definitely seen is a surge of interest from other stakeholders. So, from policymakers, I think for policymakers, they really cannot escape now the joint, twin issues, if you like, of both inequality, but also our planetary emergency.

They are seeing that systemic change, both in the sorts of businesses we have, and how investment flows, has to be the answer.

At our launch of the  Activist to Entrepreneur  research at the world’s largest international development conference in Brussels; EUDevDays.

At our launch of the Activist to Entrepreneur research at the world’s largest international development conference in Brussels; EUDevDays.

From countries as diverse as Indonesia to Ghana, Greece and Vietnam, we're seeing policymakers really coming onboard, and seeking to grow the movement in their country, and also within wider agendas.

A couple of examples. We're seeing the impact economy now become a very serious topic for those looking at mainstream economics. I'm on the steering group for a program called The Future of the Corporation. It's had leading thinkers from across the world looking at, what would the shape of the corporation be if it was actually fit for purpose for the 21st century?

They've also looked back in history and considered the journey that the corporation has actually been on, how it's changed over the decades. And some of the findings from that are really pointing towards the broader social enterprise space. They're concerned with issues such as ownership, as governance, as culture, all things that we are very much leading on in the social enterprise space.

Another example, though, is within the international development community. When the British Council was first active on social enterprise, we went to international development events, and there was really very little around the impact economy at those events. Whereas now, we see a huge number of other players who are running sessions at those events around the impact economy.

It's no longer seen as being this niche, and is actually very much part of the mainstream in terms of creating sustainable development.

An international policy delegation in the Palace of Westminster with Muhammad Yunus.

An international policy delegation in the Palace of Westminster with Muhammad Yunus.

That's really encouraging to hear about that growing momentum. It certainly aligns with the insights that we've been getting from around the globe as well, so that's great.

There's obviously still a lot of people who don't know about social enterprise, so how might we best raise awareness even more, and change mindsets so that everyone can see how business can be used to tackle our most pressing social and environmental issues?

You won't be surprised, Tom, to hear me saying that…

storytelling is a very important part of this.

The work that you guys are doing at Impact Boom… Pioneers Post, and Thomson Reuters Foundation, it's really helping the movement to tell its story better, as well as to reach new audiences. And I think the interest, the readership, for that content, is growing all the time, so that's fantastic.

On the other hand, we do need governments to play their role. We've seen that in other areas. If you take recycling, for example, in the UK today, recycling household waste is very much part and parcel of what everybody does. About half of UK household waste is successfully recycled, and it's growing all the time. And that's compared to 10% of household waste that was recycled in the year 2000.

So, actually, what we've seen is governments, (and other stakeholders, of course), really educating the public, providing signals, providing incentives, and making it easy for the public to practically do this.

At the end of the day, there's only so many people who are going to take the time to understand what a social enterprise is, and what is the added value, and why is it important. So we need to rely on governments, also, to play a key role in championing these areas.

I suppose, in terms of examples of that, in Scotland, they already have a huge amount of social enterprise activity within schools. And they've actually vowed that social enterprise will be in every school curriculum by 2028. So they're going to be reaching the next generation of young social entrepreneurs.

That's fantastic.

But they're also going to be reaching the next group of consumers, and at an age where it really will inform their behaviours as adults, as well as potentially informing what their families are doing, the families of these children, when they come home and start asking some questions. That's one way that governments can really tip the balance.

Another way is, of course, through the government purchasing power itself. That really is a game-changer if we could unlock all of the purchasing that governments are doing, so that they consider not just the quality and the price of what they're procuring, but also the wider social value.

That's a really hot agenda within our own portfolio of work. We find it's of good interest, a great deal of interest from policymakers. And it's great to see other partners coming onboard. The Social Enterprise World Forum and SAP have created a webinar tool to help build interest and capacity in this area. And that's such important work.

It really is. And I'm sure that it's encouraging for those social entrepreneurs themselves listening, as well, to hear about the growing interest in the space, and the sort of things that can be done to grow this movement.

What advice then, would you have for those social entrepreneurs listening, who are working hard to create a positive social impact?

I think the key, really, is taking care of your stress levels and your mental health, and staying focussed on your business model without trying to add too many extra considerations along the way that over-complicates what you're trying to do, and potentially makes it less feasible in the marketplace.

I guess what I'm saying is that, if you are operating in the market, you're competing, often, against much less scrupulous competition. And if you can make that work while delivering impact, it's absolutely brilliant.

I think sometimes what we do is then, from the outside, people start making requests and demands of these social enterprises. Expectations have been raised, there's a lot of big ideas. “Oh, you could do this differently, you could do that, you could change this.” It's a lot of pressure.

In reality, if it was so easy to run a business that had a perfect social and environmental impact, then surely everybody would be doing it. Don't try to be all things to all people. I think that focus, that single-minded approach to your business model, without over-complicating it, is the best route to sustainability.

One of the spaces for young people, with a recycled plastic chandalier at Dlala Nje.

One of the spaces for young people, with a recycled plastic chandalier at Dlala Nje.

Great advice, and I'm glad that you brought up the taking care of yourself part, because I think it's really come to the spotlight, especially in the last year or so, the issue of burnout in entrepreneurs, particularly social entrepreneurs. I think there's some work to be done in making sure that we do take care of ourselves, so it's great for you to highlight that.

So you might be able to share Paula, please, some really inspiring projects or initiatives that you've come across, that you believe are creating that great positive social change.

How much time have you got? I'm so very fortunate in that I get to see some really incredible social enterprises from around the world. It's the best part of the job. One I'm really excited to hear speak at the Social Enterprise World Forum, and a hidden gem, they're called Dlala Nje, from Johannesburg.

I was brought to, in Johannesburg, to a place called the Ponte Tower. It's really what you can only call an icon of poverty in the middle of Johannesburg. It sticks up right in the skyline. Every local knows it as being really a hellish place during the apartheid regime in South Africa. It was a vertical slum, and parents would say to their children, "you'd better work hard at school or you could end up in Ponte Tower."

The Ponte Tower.


So, such a powerful image and history. And to see that it's now become this fertile ground for a social enterprise called Dlala Nje, it really is incredible. They're changing perceptions about the area. They offer safety for young people, as well as education and support to young people.

And what's more incredible is that the people who've set this up, young people themselves, they're not connected with the social enterprise movement at all. I really couldn't comprehend. "You don't know any of these movements. You didn't know any of these infrastructure groups." And they just said, "Well, look, it just made sense. We want to have a job, but we also want to connect with our own values, and with the history of this area, and to give back to this area. So, purely and simply, it made sense. And we've been doing it ourselves." They run a very effective social enterprise without any external funding.

And I suppose that example is so great because…

it just shows that the next generation are really a source of such hope for us, because they don't have these barriers, or old-fashioned ways of working in their mind. They just think social enterprise is how business is meant to be, so that's brilliant.

I could go on to so many other examples, but I'm not sure you have the time.

Finally then Paula, what books would you recommend?

At the moment, I've got my head stuck into a book that's called The Economics of Arrival, which is really interesting. It's by Katherine Trebeck and Jeremy Williams. They're asking questions like, ‘is there such a thing as too much economic growth? And what is economic growth for, if we're not actually tying it fundamentally to our wellbeing and the future of our planet?’ They're asking, ‘when do we realise that our global economy is perhaps big enough?’ And tackle the difficult questions of allocating resources and dealing with equality. So that's something I've got my head stuck in at the moment.

But I have to say, I do also love to switch off and reach fiction. Over the summer, I rattled through a book that many may have already read called Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. That was a really interesting fiction novel about loneliness, really, and also about identity, and how everyday acts of kindness can be really the most important thing of all, creating our shared humanity.

Two of the founders of Dlala Nje.

Two of the founders of Dlala Nje.


You can contact Paula on LinkedIn or Twitter. Please feel free to leave comments below.

Impact Boom are proud media partners of the Social Enterprise World Forum, Ethiopia, 23-25 October.


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