Education Associate Alexi Makris reflects on the journey that brought him to working with Enabling Enterprise, and the role of social enterprise in education.

Could social enterprise and education be soulmates?

In August 2008 I walked out into Paternoster Square under the shadow of St Paul’s leaving behind me just over a year in a good graduate scheme job at one of the top US investment banks. I hadn’t been swigging champagne with clients or trading sub-prime derivatives – I had been working behind the scenes as part of a great team in a fast-paced environment with good prospects. The problem was I just didn’t care how many trades were flagged up on the holiday report, or if some funds had ended up on the wrong internal account. These things didn’t mean anything to me other than one more thing off the daily checklist as I waited for all the items to go green signalling home-time.

So what next? I had already half planned my next steps, and went to start a course in International Development. Since university I had been involved with several charities, mostly operating in East Africa, not out of an inner drive to achieve philanthropic heights – just because I found projects that have an impact on people’s lives really interesting. Through my studies and working for YBI, a great charity supporting young entrepreneurs around the world, I decided working in social impact would provide the ingredient that was totally absent from my banking role. But, how could I actually see the impact as part of what I did?

With a significant nudge from my sister (a teacher of nearly 10 years) I applied for Teach First. It was a great decision.

What I saw teaching.

I spent the following two years as a Maths teacher learning about the challenges young people in disadvantaged circumstances face in getting the education, skills and aspirations they need to have the same chances in life as more affluent peers. I also learnt what skills I had that could support the students the best, and where the gaps are in what I can offer to make sure I could direct students to people who can help them.

There is without a doubt something special about being a teacher, especially set against the backdrop of the innovations happening right now in the social enterprise sector. Developing working relationships with hundreds of young people over prolonged periods of time gives you the unique chance to see them develop in terms of their skills and knowledge, and into young adults.

The Teach First mission is “To address educational disadvantage by transforming exceptional graduates into effective, inspirational teachers and leaders in all fields”. So addressing educational disadvantage is the outcome, the transforming of exceptional graduates is the method. Many Teach First participants, such as several of my colleagues here at Enabling Enterprise, including the founder, Tom, have chosen a role away from teaching that firmly supports this mission. The opportunity teaching provides to work directly with young people, seeing them develop as people and realising what the skills and experiences are that they need to succeed after school is invaluable in “narrowing that gap”.

Social enterprise and education.

The past few years has seen a simultaneous explosion and evolution of the social enterprise environment. Teach First has not only received cross-party support, but former participants (known as Ambassadors) have created some highly successful charities and social enterprises such as the Brilliant Club, Hackney Pirates, and (plug coming) Enabling Enterprise. I believe its role in providing a socially aspirational alternative to corporate graduate schemes that offers competitive career prospects has engaged a generation of graduates in social impact. We might not have known about the roles social enterprises play in education without being a teacher, and without Teach First I would have spent any time the classroom.

Engaging the community of educationalists in acting to make a difference puts social enterprise in a very special place for education compared to other sectors. In 2010 Allison Ogden Newton, CEO of Social Enterprise London said that social enterprise models in education as compared to the NHS or MoJ were “more challenging but potentially more radical”. She said they are “more radical in a way, because with schools we’re looking at the idea not just that employees could take over schools as co-operatives, but that community based organisations or parent groups could take over”.

But social enterprise has grown to mean much more than setting something up to make an impact on people’s lives. Now a quick Google search of ‘social enterprise’ reveals a world of network organisations, social investment philanthro-capitalists, consultants and quasi-governmental facilitators to name just a few.

This speedy evolution has generated a rich matrix of organisations with fundamentally the same thread weaving their mission statements together. With what is now a social enterprise market that has developed to incorporate a variety of sectors and professional disciplines, the layers between some organisations and their beneficiaries can blur their impact, which is for the most part there somewhere.

Why I like it.

My perspective as a champion of educational social enterprise is that the proximity education gives to the way in which you make a difference makes it the element I was looking for when I left banking. To put it more simply, when I was a teacher I could see a student’s face when they clicked on how to represent algebra on a graph, or work out for themselves how to approach a mechanics problem. Or now at Enabling Enterprise I can see a student eager to question a management consultant on what their job entails and how they could get it, or beam after presenting their class project to a group of investment professionals.

So, I guess what I’m saying is thanks, big sis! Teaching was a winning choice.

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