Resilience is Key for Social Entrepreneurs


Participants on the Inspiring Enterprise programme tend to be at the very start of their journey as social entrepreneurs, and have little in the way of finances, time and knowledge to build their business.

There is no doubt that this makes for a challenging time. People who have faced these challenges head on and come out the other side to run a financially sustainable business that has real social impact, will tell you that the journey is worth it.

Reflecting on the participants I have spent time with, as well as my own journey as a social entrepreneur, the ability to stay resilient is key.

Resilience has been defined as the skill and capacity to be robust under conditions of enormous stress and change, or, the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change and keep going in the face of adversity.

The importance of resilience entered my consciousness while on a social leadership programme a few years ago. I remember that what struck me was the importance of thinking differently about failure – the fact that failure is part of the journey towards success and should be seen as a passing phase rather than a permanent label. As Thomas Eddison said, ‘I have not failed, I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.’

As Matthew Syed writes in his book Black Box Thinking: ‘Self-esteem, in short, is a vastly overvalued psychological trait. It can cause us to jeopardise learning if we think it might risk us looking anything less than perfect. What we really need is resilience: the capacity to face up to failure, and to learn from it. Ultimately, that is what growth is all about.’

Look online and there are thousands of suggestions for what makes a person resilient and how resilience can be boosted. I’m sure everyone will have their own strategies that are personal to them too. One of the standout articles I found while carrying out research for a workshop on resilience was a Harvard Business Review article by Diane Coutu called How Resilience Works.

Diane talks about the three main characteristics she believes resilient people have:

  • Optimistic realism – do I truly understand and accept the reality of my situation? T
  • A deep belief that life is meaningful – finding meaning in present day hardships to build bridges to a fuller, better constructed future. Diane explains that knowing our personal values helps us find meaning in these darker times.
  • An uncanny ability to improvise – Diane describes this as ‘the ability to make do with whatever is at hand.’ An inventiveness that enables us to improvise a solution to a problem.

Focusing on the second characteristic for a moment, a good exercise to find meaning in the struggle is to map out your school and work lives to date, visually showing the peaks and troughs.

Once you’ve done this, focus on one or two of the lower points and think about the positive meaning that emerged from these events or points in your life.

You can then go on to think about challenges you are currently facing in developing your new social enterprise, what meaning you can find in these challenges and how this might help you in the future.

In her article Diane refers to an old Sufi tale about a man and his son who alternately and repeatedly were confronted with bad luck and good fortune. Diane tells how neighbours clustered around them each time to commiserate over the former and offer congratulations on the latter. Each time the man would retain his poise and pose the same question – ‘good thing, bad thing, who knows?’

As much as I can look back on my career and find meaning in things that felt bad at the time, I can equally think of times when I got over-excited about something that turned out not to live up to my expectations. This story reminds me of the importance of staying level-headed.

Receiving support from a programme like Inspiring Enterprise will also help. Participants report that receiving support from people who have gone through similar journeys helps them to see the wood from the trees and understand that they are not alone. Being helped through some of the technical requirements of starting a social enterprise can also help, as this can reduce the amount of time you need to dedicate to parts of the process.

Find out more about the support you can receive on the Inspiring Enterprise programme by phoning Action Hampshire on 01962 854971 or emailing Alison Bridge.

You can also learn more about resilience by visiting The Resilience Institute website.