Pole position: How a Polish PhD student is putting social entrepreneurs on the map

A doctoral student from Poland, raised under Communism, is at the vanguard of the social enterprise movement. Michael Prest hears the story behind his award-winning research
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The Independent Online

Artur Steinerowski sounds typically modest. The Polish doctoral student is the youngest ever winner of a prestigious US academic award that attracts entrants from around the globe, but Steinerowski is quick to acknowledge the support he has received. "It's not just me – I couldn't have won this without the other authors," he says. "It's been a cooperative effort, and it's great for all of us."

The international prize is awarded by the Lewis Institute, at Babson College in Massachusetts, which specialises in social entrepreneurship (see box); the award was for a paper titled, "Who are the social 'entrepreneurs' and what do they actually do?" Steinerowski wrote it with his PhD supervisor Professor Jane Farmer at the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute and Professor Sarah Jack of the University of Lancaster.

But how did a 27-year-old Polish student end up writing a paper on social entrepreneurship in Inverness with two British academics – let alone beat hundreds of more experienced entrants from around the world to win the award? The story says a lot about higher education, geographical mobility and applied research in the modern world.

Steinerowski comes from Gliwice, a city of about 200,000 people in southern Poland. His father was an engineer and his mother died when he was six. The young Artur grew up with his two sisters in straitened circumstances. Though educated, his father had difficulty finding work, and for a while ran a small shop. Poles entered the 1990s scarred by Communism and its collapse.

However, that collapse, and Poland's entry into the European Union, transformed Artur Steinerowski's opportunities. In 2002, while studying marketing and management at the Technical University of Opole in Poland, he hopped across the North Sea to Inverness College in Scotland to study business administration as an exchange student. "My English wasn't very good," he says. "It was difficult; it was tough being in a foreign country. But people were very friendly and they supported me."

He fell in love with Scotland but, unable to pay overseas student fees, had to return home to continue his MA programme. Then, in 2004, Poland joined the EU. Steinerowski applied for and won an Erasmus scholarship, allowing him to return to Scotland. There he applied to five universities, navigating the mysteries of UCAS almost single-handed.

The best offer came from Aberdeen University, to do the third year of a management studies course that would count towards his Polish MA. In 2006 he was awarded an MA jointly by Aberdeen and Opole.

An able student, Steinerowski won a first for his dissertation at Aberdeen; his supervisor, Dr Raluca Dunduchi, urged him to do a PhD. She drew his attention to a doctorate offered by the Centre for Rural Health in Inverness, an institution that is jointly sponsored by Aberdeen and the Millennium Institute. The doctorate is funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the official body promoting economic and community development in northern Scotland. Steinerowski applied.

"I wasn't aware of funding back then," he says. "I remember getting a telephone call offering me the PhD place. I was amazed."

Highlands and Islands Enterprise was interested in a number of research topics, one of them being social entrepreneurship. The interest reflected changes in thinking about how community services could be provided in Scotland. Faced with ageing populations and strains on public funding, governments in many parts of the world are searching for new and cheaper ways of providing services, for example in health. Scotland was no exception, and social entrepreneurship appeared to be a promising answer.

The Government had produced a social entrepreneurship strategy back in 2002, but the idea gained currency among Scottish politicians and policy-makers more slowly. As official and public interest in social entrepreneurship has grown, however, so have the research opportunities.

Steinerowski started his PhD research into social entrepreneurship in 2006. He admitted that he was sceptical. "At first I thought, 'How can this actually work?'" he says. "I thought I knew about the business concept. But social entrepreneurship puzzled me. How can you connect business with social aims? Why do people want to be involved in this kind of activity?"

He confessed that he was probably still under the influence of Poland's Communist past. "I thought that all institutions which derive from the market can't be social." But as his research developed his ideas changed. "I started to discover great examples of social entrepreneurs. They start from scratch. They work where the state and others cannot or will not. They work for the community."

Impressed by what he saw, Steinerowski began to ask a different question: "What are the barriers to, and promoters of, success in social entrepreneurship?" This is the central issue his research tries to address. The research is based on 35 interviews with workers, volunteers and managers in social enterprises, health and social care professionals, and local councillors and politicians across the Highlands and Islands; it is the core of the Babson paper.

Steinerowski and his co-authors argue that "social entrepreneurs" should be regarded as entrepreneurs because they share many characteristics with conventional business entrepreneurs. But because they see the world differently from conventional entrepreneurs and have different values, social entrepreneurs spot different opportunities – for example, the need for services in small, remote communities.

These opportunities, however, suffer from particular constraints. The first is that social entrepreneurs depend heavily on official approval, which is not always forthcoming. Unless governments are prepared to clear the legal path for social enterprises and to send business their way as a matter of policy, the scope for expansion will be limited.

The second set of constraints is that many of the features of the Highlands and Islands that seem to encourage social enterprise can also discourage it. For example, remote communities needing dementia care – many of Scotland's rural communities are experiencing immigration of older people – may be too cut off for the National Health Service and too small for private enterprise. That seems to be attractive to social enterprise – except that a small market means that it can be hard to generate the income to support the service. Small, remote communities also tend to be conservative and wary of outsiders, and their elderly populations expect the state to provide.

Social enterprise is not universally accepted. Perhaps the biggest barrier is simply that people have no clue what it is. Even Steinerowski and his co-authors confess that the concept is elastic. Nevertheless, he is optimistic. "I would like to see the development of a health centre," he says. "It will take a few years but the trend is going in the right direction. I think there's a shortage of such services and social enterprises can deliver them."

His supervisor, Professor Farmer, agrees that there is a need for community health services, such as supporting isolated people who may suffer from loneliness and depression, or providing transport; she calls this "care crofting". But she is more cautious about how easily social entrepreneurs can overcome the practical obstacles to running successful local businesses and acceptance by locals. "Any intervention has to be culturally attuned and sensitive," she says.

That does not stop her from being full of praise for her PhD student, whom she taught at Aberdeen University Business School. "I quickly came to realise he was different from other students. I remember driving him up to Inverness in my car and he told me his life story. I thought: what an incredible story."

For Steinerowski, a new chapter in that story will be the publication of his paper in the journal Frontiers of Entrepreneurship Research this spring. In June he goes to Massachusetts to read his paper to Babson's annual conference on entrepreneurship and to receive his $2,500 prize. He hopes to finish his doctorate this year and to continue his research into social enterprise in the Highland and Islands. It is all a long way from Gliwice, in every sense.

What are social entrepreneurs?

"Social entrepreneur" may sound like an oxymoron, but the basic idea is that making money can be harnessed to meet social goals. The social part – helping drug addicts and the homeless, training jobless people, caring for elderly people with dementia – is the purpose; the entrepreneur part is the means of doing it.

Like conventional entrepreneurs, the social entrepreneur runs a business to make money. But a social entrepreneur's business differs in two fundamental ways. First, it may be separate from the social objective. Providing services to drug addicts could by funded by running a shop (which in remote Highlands and Islands communities might itself be a service). Second, all the profits are ploughed back into either the business or the service it supports, rather than going into the pockets of owners or shareholders.

The then Department for Trade and Industry estimated in 2005 that there were 3,000 social enterprises in Scotland, where Artur Steinerowski is doing his research, contributing £1bn a year to the Scottish economy. Around a third of the social enterprises were in rural areas.

Social enterprises are distinct from the charity and voluntary sectors, though they may use volunteers. They do not depend on grants and donations and try to grow their businesses as independent entities. MP