Sustainable entrepreneurs have the potential to solve some major problems. A new company can change the market and influence our way of life. But how do you transform such a problem into a business opportunity? Margo Enthoven (28), PhD student at the Centre for Sustainable Entrepreneurship at University of Groningen/Campus Fryslân, will be awarded a PhD on the 18th of March for her research into this very subject, during which she drew a number of remarkable conclusions.
For her research, Enthoven interviewed ‘enterprising activists and activist entrepreneurs’. ‘One of them launched his own plant-based ice cream because he opposed conventional dairy farming. And because he travelled a lot for his work, he came across coconut milk in Asia. “What if I throw that in the ice cream maker?” He had an idea and he tried it out. And now it’s available in shops. That idea became his business.’
Sustainable entrepreneurs and activists have the same goal: to open up the market and change consumer behaviour. ‘They’re not all that different and they follow a similar path, starting with an emotional shock. For example, the excessive amount of plastic, or witnessing abuse in the bio-industry: “Oh, I’m contributing towards this, I’m a link in this system.” Those who realize that try to establish a new identity and find a solution. That creates opportunities, because a new identity opens up a new network, and with it new knowledge and resources.’
Margo also finds that sustainable entrepreneurs mostly recognize opportunities in places where there are already many same-industry companies located, even if these are not explicitly sustainable. This shows that it’s important to stimulate sustainable entrepreneurship in places where there already are many companies from that industry.
In her PhD thesis, Enthoven describes a number of applicable strategies, such as broadening the market and connecting various groups. ‘An activist might point out the suffering associated with the production of meat. An entrepreneur comes up with a sustainable alternative and then calls it humane, or links eating less meat to a healthier life. That’s how the connections are made. There is a certain synergy between the two, and they could actually facilitate each other.’
The results are pleasing. ‘It’s a hopeful conclusion. Recognizing a problem is great, but it’s even better to then do something about it and come up with strategies that lead to business opportunities. You can incorporate that in teaching, you can write blogs about it or give workshops. It makes it tangible.’
Enthoven studied human geography and urban and regional planning in Groningen, and moved to Leeuwarden in 2016 to start her PhD at the Centre for Sustainable Entrepreneurship. Currently she is working on a post doc at the Stockholm School of Economics in Stockholm, Sweden.
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