Why conferences are key to a career in social enterprise

When you're searching off the beaten track for a career with impact, it can be tricky to find what you're looking for. Will Churchill is social enterprise manager at Student Hubs, where he spends his time engaging students with social and environmental challenges. His advice? Spend a weekend in Oxford at the Emerge Conference.

I remember my first conference. I’ve always been interested in development, ever since I volunteered in Uganda (cliched, I know, but we can’t help where our crystallising moments happen). At university, I signed up to every newsletter going, trying to get hold of anything that would push me down that path. One day an email came my way advertising a conference in Oxford about social enterprise.

Conferences are a relatively easy thing to attend. You have an interest in a subject, you grab a ticket, and you turn up to meet some people and eat buffet food. This seemed like a good idea, so I booked a place.

That weekend - Emerge 2011 - really changed my perception of the social sector. I was inspired by the people I met there and taken aback by their successes. And I’m not just talking about the speakers. Putting the talks and sessions to one side for a second (and I really shouldn’t, because they were incredible) just being in the same space as over 500 other people who were all passionate about changing the world gave me an incredible buzz.

As well as the intellectual stimulation a conference offers, there is a simpler joy in attending conferences. It comes from the atmosphere, the networking and the exchange of ideas. That’s the thing that keeps people coming back. It’s the same reason that people buy gig tickets even though they’ve bought the album. (Yes, I’m equating a social enterprise conference to a live gig). 

Conferences are just one way of engaging people, but I think that the result of that engagement can be real and measurable. These events showcase the incredible things that social enterprises are doing. More importantly though, they show you how to get there yourself. For me, a good conference (and Emerge is a great conference) is as much about giving you the tools to act as it is about introducing you to a group of people who have been there and done it. A good conference will grab you, inspire you, and give you the chance to converse at the same level as internationally renowned experts in the sector.

I witness the impact of these chances to engage with the sector through my work at Student Hubs – an organisation dedicated to helping students find a cause they’re passionate about and channel their energy into making a difference. 

Students really can play a huge part in society and, indeed, have always been active in the social action movement. There is something about their unique blend of relative freedom and unquenchable thirst to learn more - about everything - which makes them fantastically well placed to affect change. At Student Hubs, we work with thousands of students across the country who take it upon themselves to make a difference in their local and international communities. 

Through our inspirational events - like our range of conferences - we empower students with the confidence, contacts, and skills to affect change, on a whole range of issues. And we’ve seen the lasting effects: over 3000 students attended conferences across our network last year, and in the last academic year alone we supported 93 new student-led social action projects. These range from helping to combat isolation affecting older people, to promoting more environmentally sustainable ways of living. As a result, over 80% of our students feel more connected with their local community, and over 70% feel inspired to take further action after university. 

And if you’re looking for an example, I’m now the Social Enterprise Manager of Student Hubs, organising Emerge 2014, and all that started from my first ever conference. Emerge did that for me, and dozens of conferences all over the country do the same thing for hundreds of people.

How’s that for great symmetry?