During the month of February, our online editor Vanessa Faloye gave two keynote speeches at UNLTD.org.uk and Queen Mary University of London on the topic of ‘failure’ as a social entrepreneur. Here, she shares the content of those keynotes in the spirit of intelligent failure. She refers to them as the top three failforwards to watch out for before even beginning to build a social enterprise.

1. Thinking, wondering, wishing

So I always start with the most obvious failure to point out as a social entrepreneur which  9/10 of us make when thinking about starting a new social venture… catch the failure already? Yes… thinking about thinking about thinking about starting something. How many of us have been sitting, wishing, ‘protecting’ an idea for far too long? Going round and round romanticising this big idea in our heads and hearts, but no hands. Just a lot of dreaming and no doing. This is probably one of the most cliched failures that we commit (ironically before we’ve begun because we never begin) and this is really not breaking news so you have been warned! Get to trying, testing, and doing! Here’s a great quote that puts the dangers of eternal regret into perspective:

“The graveyard is the richest place on earth, because it is here that you will find all the hopes and dreams that were never fulfilled, the books that were never written, the songs that were never sung, the inventions that were never shared, the cures that were never discovered, all because someone was too afraid to take that first step, keep with the problem, or determined to carry out their dream.” – Les Brown

2. Underestimating the complexity of the problem

As a creative, I’m constantly coming up with ideas. Ideas that are designed for social change except they often had no design at all. I would try to answer highly complex problems with simple, self-serving solutions and just expect the magic to happen… “errr no” said life as it handed me a massive L. These solutions were not only reductionist and simplistic in nature but full of unchallenged assumptions and unintended consequences that would lead to some pretty whack impact or none at all. To give an example, one of my early social enterprises worked to bring refugees, migrants, and Spanish community members together through fun leisure-time events. I thought just bringing these two groups into the same space for some good old fashioned dialogue would automatically build bridges and reduce discrimination but I never thought about how attitudes and behaviour stemming from deeply engrained prejudice and unconscious bias would still manifest (perhaps more subtly) regardless of the where and when. Sometimes I look back and think we did more harm exposing vulnerable groups to a range of scenarios that we had no real plan for how to handle. Behavioural change is so much more layered and I underestimated the economic, political, legal, and historical factors that played a big part in why refugees and migrants were so heavily disadvantaged and therefore discriminated against. Complex problem + simple solution does not equal ‘problem solved’. 

Local-global issues like poverty, oppression, and environmental degradation cannot always be so easily dismissed to be the fault of the government and these issues cannot be solved overnight, especially when there’s no cross-sectoral or multidisciplinary approach in place. Because it was long, tiring, and intimidating, I never bothered to apprentice with the problem and do the market-mindset research that would reveal the structural factors, power dynamics, and human behaviours shaping the status quo. And just because we do ‘research’ doesn’t mean we’re asking the right questions or getting honest answers – this process takes time, close observation, and lived experience to uncover the monster and face it. As social entrepreneurs we want to disrupt and interrupt systems of injustice in a way that is financially viable but to do this we must understand the concept of value-adding and problem-solving in the first place; instead we get so busy and so reactive in the day-to-day that many of us do not invest the effort or patience in finding out what that really means. So when you find the tip of the iceberg of said problem, take a deep breath (before the hero entrepreneur in you screams Eureka!) and deep dive under the surface to find out what on earth is going on underneath. Enjoy another quote:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

3. Ignoring who you are and what you want

Before even birthing the idea of a social enterprise, I recommend doing some serious soul-searching and thinking about what you, yes you, really want in life. What does this life look like? Where are you? Who is around you? What do you need as an absolute minimum? What would the best and worst case scenario be? I rushed into the trendy founder-entrepreneur lifestyle without giving any thought to my own kind of lifestyle. For example, I’m a traveler and have an insatiable love of traveling and yet I found myself feeling caged in glass-walled coworking spaces. My venture was in a fixed location so I got restless and therefore distracted. My life passions were not compatible with my life project which quickly led to my underperformance as a co-founder. I’m not saying that sometimes we don’t have to make sacrifices or trade offs but these should never be permanent and we should always be aware of the things that are non-negotiable and for me it was the ability to travel with my work.

To go one step further, I also didn’t align my natural skillset with my social enterprising. I went for chief officer positions which I romanticised in my head or which I thought I would be good at rather than what I was actually great at. I ignored my natural talents as an educator which eventually proved to be the thing that I excelled at and that people instantly recognised in me. Once I accepted my bottom lines in life, the sky became the limit and I built my own freelancing consultancy in social impact education that was both social and entrepreneurial. Don’t get carried away with the social status or the idealised idea of founding a social enterprise if it doesn’t align with you and what you want for yourself. A final quote for you to digest:

Self-awareness allows people to recognize what things they do best so they can then go hard on those aspects of their life. It also helps you accept your weaknesses.” – Gary Vaynerchuk

So hopefully this has given you some food for thought before embarking on your social ad-venture: let’s not waste it.


If you would like to book Vanessa Faloye for a motivational speech or educational workshop, please get in touch with her via her website: www.vanessafaloye.com