Social Enterprise Educator
An associate professor with the Faculty of Business Administration at Memorial University, Dr. Tom Cooper, has many ties to social enterprise. He has expertise in corporate social responsibility, entrepreneurship, ethics of business, international business and strategy and has been involved with social enterprises for the last 10 years.
Aside from the projects he takes part in, Dr. Cooper lectures both undergraduate and graduate students in the areas of strategy, risk management, management consulting, and ethics/values.
To list a few of his involvements, Dr. Cooper is on the board of Food First NL, works as a consultant with many social enterprises, and is a board director of SmartICE Sea Ice Monitoring & Information Inc. (SmartICE) that was founded by Dr. Trevor Bell.
The biggest project that Dr. Cooper is currently working on is SmartICE, which is founded and led by Dr. Trevor Bell. SmartICE is the world’s first climate change adaptation tool to integrate traditional knowledge of sea ice with advanced data acquisition and remote monitoring technology. They embrace a business model that aims to expand opportunities for economic and social development in northern markets while preserving local cultures and lifestyles. As one of the initial board members, Dr. Cooper had his name on the Arctic Inspiration Prize for SmartICE in 2016.
As social enterprises and non-profits expand substantially in the workforce, it is important that this generation of entrepreneurial, tech-savvy individuals who thrive for meaningful work can experience and indulge in the education of this growing topic.
Dr. Cooper tries to bring this topic of conversation into the classroom, letting students know the possibility that social enterprise is a viable model for organizing market-driven opportunities. Through the graduate level, Dr. Cooper engages his students through MBA consulting, individual student’s research papers, and speaking on the opportunities for social enterprises and peaking their interests.
“When I’m teaching in the classroom, it’s putting forward that possibility that social enterprise is a viable model for organizing and in some places it’s probably the only model for organizing market-driven opportunities.” - Dr. Tom Cooper
Dr. Cooper stated that he sees an increase in students understanding and developing interest in social enterprise over the last 10 years, and expects this to keep increasing with time.
Q: What attracts you to Social Enterprise?
A: I like the idea of having strategic goals which have a social purpose, which is why I was attracted to the world of social enterprise. I got interested in it predominantly because of my research on aboriginal business models, specifically financial ones where we looked at cooperatives versus other models for financing and operating Aboriginal enterprises. In the aboriginal world, social enterprise is either implicit or explicit as a model for business activities. It’s interesting to see the development of social enterprise as a model for business activities. It’s also interesting to see the development of social enterprise not only here in Newfoundland and Labrador but also the rest of Canada and the world.
Q: Can you discuss the types of projects you’re involved with?
A: The ones that are published where we exploring aboriginal business models in finance and in fisheries. I’m currently on the board of Food First NL, which is also a non-profit but there is still social enterprise elements. It’s more in the non-profit side of the spectrum rather than on the pure social enterprise side. I’ve done work as a consultant with a bunch of social enterprises predominantly in municipal community level – for example a ‘community-owned RV Park’, where we examined the feasibility of expansion and risk related issues. The one where I am spending a lot of time on is with SmartICE. SmartICE is founded and led by Dr. Trevor Bell. I’m on the board of directors with Trevor. I’m just helping with strategic planning and financing. My name was on the Artic Inspiration Prize as part of SmartICE. The organization also just won a United Nations award. I have been able to have students involved in the development of the organization – for example we had MBA students working on different projects within SmartICE assisting in strategic planning over the last summer.
Q: What is your take on the potential for social enterprise in NL?
A: It’s interesting because if you look at the history in Newfoundland and Labrador from a business perspective, cooperatives have always played a big role in the province. Although the role has sometimes gone up and down it has always had a place in the province. I once remember when I was an undergraduate being told that back in the 1950’s there was a deputy minister solely responsible for cooperatives in the province. I believe there has always been the recognition that SE’s, if they’re organized well and run well, they identify the opportunities and they take advantage of market opportunities. They can be very successful. For example, one of the challenges that we have in Newfoundland and Labrador is that we have a small population. As a result, we have a small market for internally consumed products and services, etc. So as a result, you may not be able to get an adequate risk-related return on investment because the market may be too small to benefit from your idea unless you’re willing to export services, etc. So if you focus more on Newfoundland and Labrador as a consumer market then it may make sense, whether that’s a Corner Store or it’s a fish plant, to look at a social enterprise. When you look at your risk related return on investments, which I think is very important for social enterprise because when you factor in social return on investment then you can make a much better business case for engaging in the activity or opportunity than if you just looked at purely financial return on investment.
Q: What are some barriers that social enterprises face/may face in NL?
A: In my perspective, financing is a big issue. Sustainable funding is also a big issue. Recognizing that not all social enterprises can be purely long term financially sustainable based on market activities is another issue as well. We also have to address the profit issue. Profit, and making profit, may be seen as a bad thing. Profit is essential for the success of a social enterprise. Profit that is reinvested into the organization and is used to meet social goals can be very beneficial to all.
Q: What do you do to help engage your students on social enterprise?
A: When I am teaching in the classroom, it is putting forward the possibility that social enterprise is a viable model for organizing and in some places it’s probably the only model for organizing market driven opportunities because the return on investment may not be sufficient enough to justify a private sector organization taking financial risks. When you factor in social goals as well as the social purpose of the enterprise, it may make more sense to have it as a social enterprise then it would be a purely private sector. In terms of engagement, it is about giving students opportunities whether it’s through MBA consulting or individual research papers. I find it is more graduate than undergraduate students because that’s where I do most of my teaching but predominantly it is talking about the opportunities for social enterprises and seeing if there is a match in helping students with their own interests.
Q: What do you see in terms of level of interest in the classroom? Do students ‘get it’? Do they see potential for their career paths?
A: I think we have seen a big “getting it” increase over the last 10 years; especially for those that want to stay in NL and Labrador. The model around social enterprise has a lot more salience here than maybe if you’re in Toronto or Vancouver or somewhere much bigger. That being said, I think people also get it that social enterprise doesn’t always work and it’s really about choosing strategically the right model to meet your goals and objectives about what you’re trying to achieve. So definitely a big increase and I imagine it will keep on increasing as well.
Q: How might you wish to inspire/advise other interested faculty (whether business or other) to become involved in social enterprise?
A: We have a privileged position, we have great jobs, for those whose research, teaching and engagement activities have any sort of linkages to social enterprises then I think we can add a lot of value, whether you’re helping with strategy, marketing, finance, etc. Inspiration is an element of recognizing where we can help and where we can find win-win situations with social enterprises that can help our teaching, researching, and engagement activities.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Newfoundland and Labrador is a strange place right? The notion of place is really important to us as a society and I think when we’re really lucky and we get immigrants who come here and they like to stay here they always talk about the notion of place. When we look at social enterprises, they are grounded in the notion of place. In Newfoundland and Labrador, why we are here in the middle of the Atlantic is very grounded in place. Newfoundland and Labrador is a very beautiful place to live but, at the same time, it is not the easiest place sometimes to live because of remoteness and challenges whether that’s economic, social or financial etc. What social enterprises help us with is to be grounded to the place whether that’s through going to the Hungry Heart Café and having brunch, eating fish from Fogo island co-op, or buying furniture from Island Furniture. I think the really interesting thing for SEs here in Newfoundland and Labrador is how it is tied into the fabric of the province. Social enterprises that have social goals are not just about profit or personal gain. At the same time, social enterprises are not saying that profit isn’t important. The importance of good financial and operations management, reinvesting into the business and having retained earnings are essential for success. Social enterprises teach us we can have financial success, as well as a good return on investment along with having social goals.