Entrepreneurs

The Difference Engine – What Happens When Social Science Meets Innovation?

Until relatively recently, entrepreneurship was not something that was particularly on the agenda for students completing their studies at the London School of Economics (LSE). “Graduates would leave and either turn left in the direction of the City of London or right towards government,” says LJ Silverman, head of the university’s accelerator program, LSE Generate.    

But things are changing. As Silverman explains, increasing numbers of students and alumni are seeing entrepreneurship not only as a career option but as an alternative path towards making a difference. “Students have begun to think they can’t rely on governments to solve all the issues they are concerned about,” she says.

Launched in March 2020 – just in time for the first pandemic lockdown – LSE Generate offers much the same array of support services you would expect to find in a typical university-led accelerator. Over a six month period, members of each cohort have access to workshops, mentoring, coaching and regular bootcamps. But where the LSE program perhaps differs from others is in its focus on “impact.” Generate’s aim is to build companies that can help progress at least two of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.  

Social Sciences 

Perhaps that’s not surprising. Founded in the 19th century by members of the Fabian Society, the London School of Economics specialises in (broadly speaking) the social sciences – something that explains why many of its alumni find their way into government. Consequently, Generates’s cohorts are peopled not necessarily with tech evangelists seeking to exploit the commercial potential of A.I. or genome sequencing but with founders who are steeped in economics, government and policy, anthropology and the humanities. Arguably, that background feeds through to a different kind of entrepreneur. 

“The businesses we are accelerating tend to have a tech component at their heart and we cooperate with other institutions such as Imperial College on that,” says Silverman.  “But they are rooted in the social sciences.” 

Profit and Purpose 

So what does that mean in practice?  Well, the common factor is that the founders – each in their own way – are balancing profit and purpose. For instance, cohort member 1001 Stories markets statement shoes and has the public face of a fashion brand. Underpinning this a manufacturing process which harnesses the skills available in marginalized communities. To take another example, Lugo uses crowdsourced data to gather data on curable illnesses. In other words, purpose is always close to or on the surface.

“When you combine innovation with social sciences you get something very powerful,” says Silverman.    

Diversity

One byproduct of the emphasis on impact is a higher than average number of female founders. I’m speaking to Silverman in the run up to International Women’s Day and she is proud of the fact that 65% participants in the current cohort are women. While there are any quotas at work, achieving a representative diversity has been a clear objective of the accelerator’s creators.  “What we aim to do is dismantle the barriers that deter women from entrepreneurship,” she says.   

There is a fair amount of leading by example. For instance, talks on investment are often led by female investors and care has been taken to ensure that women are well represented in terms of the LSE alumni who take part in the mentoring and judging activities.

It’s also perhaps more than helpful to the diversity cause that tech – which still tends to be male-dominated – is only part of the picture. The profit and purpose agenda is clearly attracting female entrepreneurs. It’s a similar story with ASAP, a country-wide accelerator also managed by the LSE – in which 40 percent of its cohort are women.   

Silverman is keen to stress that Generate is out to grow businesses that have the potential to scale and attract investment.  “We want to change the view that impact means not making any money,” she says. Thus a key component of the accelerator is advice from investors on how to raise the money necessary to scale. 

The Generate program is open to all LSE students, postgraduates and alumni but in practical terms, it is often the those who have already graduated who are most likely to benefit.  Students, after all, have essays to write and exams to pass. Entrance is competitive – based around business plans, pitch decks and videos – but even those who don’t make it into a cohort can access ongoing advice on entrepreneurship and support through the university.   

It’s early days, but success will take the form of a growing community of alumni who are using entrepreneurship as their chosen route to bringing about social change.

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