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Emma Folmer: Forget about the rules and play with the ideas

Date:12 January 2022
Assistant Professor of Sustainable Entrepreneurship Emma Folmer
Assistant Professor of Sustainable Entrepreneurship Emma Folmer

It all started with the PhD project on small business dynamics in residential neighbourhoods, for which Emma interviewed a number of business owners and became fascinated with their drive and a problem-solving mindset. It motivated her to continue researching entrepreneurship in a PostDoc position at Aston Business School in the UK, where she focused specifically on the topic of social entrepreneurship, which has defined the direction of her academic career. In present times Assistant Professor of Sustainable Entrepreneurship at Campus Fryslân Emma Folmer is sharing her thoughts on sustainable entrepreneurship, her daily inspiration, and a recipe of an ideal world.

What inspired you to follow the path of Sustainable Entrepreneurship?

Sustainable entrepreneurship is about that entrepreneurial drive, but also about entrepreneurs wanting to do something for society as a whole, about  having an impact that is bigger than just bringing a new product to the market or developing something new.

For my research I had to speak to many social entrepreneurs and it is a very rewarding and inspirational experience because you can see how they are driven by the social impact that they create, even if most of the time they take very little out of their business in financial terms. But this passion and drive is just contagious, so when you talk to them you think “oh, this is so exciting, it is such an interesting topic.”
I worked with some amazing people in the field, such as Johanna Mair, who is one of the founding mothers of social entrepreneurship research, and Ute Stephan, a very prominent social entrepreneurship scholar. Those women served as an example for me and I knew I wanted to be a part of that community.

Could you shortly explain what exactly social entrepreneurship entails?

A quick definition of social entrepreneurship is when someone starts a business with a social mission, in order to try and make a contribution to solving a social problem - anything from inequality in education or poverty or homelessness, etc.You have some archetypal examples of social enterprises to illustrate what social entrepreneurship is about. Thus, in India there is Aravind Eye hospital, where for each surgery that is paid by somebody who can afford it a free surgery is given to someone who can not. Another example of a one for one business model is Tom’s shoes, where when you buy one pair of shoes they will give another one to someone who cannot afford it. This model has also been criticized. It is an interesting case, because these shoes by Tom’s were flooding the markets in African countries meaning that local shoemakers actually lost their income. So there is always such a complexity of these problems that you have to keep in mind when you are implementing solutions like this. There are other models, for instance a well-known example is Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant providing jobs to young people that are not in employment or education or to those who have troubled youth, training them as professional chefs, so that they could find a job in a good restaurant afterwards. 

How can social enterprises contribute to reducing environmental impact? 

For general impact in society it doesn’t really matter whether you call yourself social entrepreneur or sustainable entrepreneur or ecopreneur. But I would say that to achieve that true triple-bottom line  - people-planet- profit -  or in other words social-environmental- and financial impact is extremely difficult. There are of course sustainable enterprises that are able to do that but typically you would see that they focus either on the social pillar or on the environmental one. There are not so many examples of the enterprises that were able to do both.There is a local example in Nijmegen (the Netherlands), a bakery called Trash'ure Taarten, as” treasure”, but meaning “made out of trash cakes”. So they bake cakes out of ingredients that have passed their expiry date but are still good to use, and they employ refugees to make them. This way they are catching both - they are doing something about food waste - environmental, and also addressing that social pillar - so employing people who have some distance to the labour market.
Sometimes, with an example of Tom’s, you can see that some social activity can actually have negative environmental impact. The question is -  what happens to those shoes in developing countries once they are disposed of? Are they recycled in a correct way, or are they being wasteful? It is difficult.

What kind of solutions to the existing problems students from MSc Sustainable Entrepreneurship have come up with?

There are some really nice examples, a year or two ago we had a student who came up with a “postato” in a pitching competition. He made the case that on annual basis thousands of potatoes are being discarded because they don’t look pretty enough for the stores. And he thought it would be nice if you had this little funny-looking potato that you turn into a sort of puppet and send it per post along with a short message, hence “postato”.
We had quite a few start-up ideas around sustainable fashion, where in the first cohort there were two students who came up with an idea of garments you could use in multiple ways, for instance as a jumper and also as a dress, so you would need less in your wardrobe in total. Two of the students have actually managed to launch their common startup - a car-sharing app “Hop on” for car-pooling for work purposes.

→ Check all student projects

Is MSc Sustainable Entrepreneurship only for future business founders?

We have several types of students. One of them is indeed that student who is really set on starting their own business and so we make sure to give them enough opportunities to do that, but also to network.
Another type is a student who is perhaps not so sure about starting their own business, but they have that drive and that sort of entrepreneurial mindset which they decide to apply to an existing enterprise trying to make it more sustainable. And then there is a small segment of the third type that is more academically oriented and might actually be interested in an academic career looking into how we can develop more knowledge around sustainable entrepreneurship and bring that field further. 

Apply for MSc. Sustainable Entrepreneurship!

What do you do in your free time?

I don’t have that much free time if you mean the time I spend by myself (laughing). I have two three-year-old children, twins, a boy and a girl and I spend all my free time with them. They are absolutely amazing, they are the light of my life. We have just moved to a new house in Leeuwarden and when you enter it I always say it is completely chaotic (laughing), but I try to keep inner peace and calm. If I still have the energy after children are in bed I love to read books. I also love board games, although I don’t get to play them as often as I like. 

Your children must be a great source of inspiration for you...

Small children are all about playing, so they don’t have rules, they just make up stuff. I like that idea of playfulness and coming up with really crazy fun ideas. Sometimes I watch them play and  I think this is also something that our students should really do more. I think this is also a part of what an entrepreneur does, right? They play with ideas, without being bothered by existing ways of thinking, they just come up with whatever they want and then later see how they can make it work or fit in a framework that is already there. That is one of the ways my kids inspire me.

What would the ideal world of Emma Folmer look like?

As a society I think we have a lot of tools and knowledge to make the world better in terms of both climate and all sorts of social problems. Also, the longer we wait to make changes the more costly those changes will be, if at all possible. It is completely irrational but also very human because we don’t like to think about twenty or thirty years ahead, it is very difficult.
We were also talking about COP26 and Gretha Thunberg referring to the world leaders and saying “it’s all blah-blah-blah...” . And I guess partly that is true but on the other hand it’s easy to dismiss those leaders as not having the impetus or drive to do anything, but they are working with what they have within the limits that they have. That collective action problem, that is the problem. I don’t have an answer to solve that, but in my ideal world I would hope we would be more action-oriented and willing to cooperate.

Start your application to MSc. Sustainable Entrepreneurship!