Spain's first social enterprise accelerator rises

Could Valencia be the home of social entrepreneurship in Spain? Margarita Albors is certainly helping the city stake a good claim...

Margarita Albors (above, wearing red trousers) set up Social Nest, the first social enterprise accelerator in Spain in 2010. At the time unemployment sat at 20.2%, after a loss of 1.6 million jobs over two years. The public deficit was at 11% of GDP, with heavy austerity measures starting to hit public sector pay and pensions.

Since then, Social Nest has helped 34 entrepreneurs grow 23 projects, from recycling coffee pods to using technology to improve communication between teachers and parents. It works by offering intensive courses, incubation and accelerator programmes. Entrepreneurs are given the tools to implement their ideas, helped to become investment ready and supported to grow their ventures. Although no impact data currently exists, 70% of these projects are still operating today.  

Back in 2008 when Albors, an industrial engineer by trade, was accepted to study at Harvard, she wasn’t looking for radical social solutions.  But what hit her during her first visit to the United States, was the vast social inequality that surrounded her every day. The number of people living on the street was a stark contrast to the privilege of studying in one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions.

When the opportunity to study social entrepreneurship was presented, it opened her eyes to the potential impact that business models could have. She returned to Spain determined to use these ideas to resolve some of the social and economic challenges facing the country and so, in 2010, Social Nest was born.

Although there is a large social economy in Spain, with an estimated 43,000 organisations, employing 2.2 million people, including co-operatives, mutuals, labour societies, and many other legal entities there is a lack of understanding of social entrepreneurship. Ashoka was the only other organisation operating in the country at the time, so raising awareness of social entrepreneurship was her first challenge, one that was essential in order to overcome her second: a lack of resources.

However, with the support of many volunteers, Albors first started the accelerator in an innovation space within the University of Valencia. As the organisation grew and awareness and donations increased, she formed a foundation.  Social Nest now counts the Valencian government, the Foundation of national bank CaixaBank and local businesses as its major funders, and is increasing its sustainable income through consultancy and training services, although it doesn’t foresee being fully self-sustainable.

Moving out of the University and opening the new co-working space The Nest is the next step in creating an focal point for social enterprise in the city. The challenges facing the sector in Spain will be familiar to those working in social enterprises around the world – public understanding, a price driven market, access to funding and the skills and drive to carry out and share impact measurement.

However, in addition to these common issues, Albors sees several cultural challenges facing the Spanish market. The Spanish donate a significant amount to charity, but Albors notes there is an expectation that the state will provide for social and welfare needs.  However, with faith in the political establishment rocked in recent years post financial crisis and several high profile corruption scandals, the Spanish are now looking to alternatives.

In order to deliver them, a more entrepreneurial culture needs to be encouraged from a young age, to create the next generation of change makers. Albors has also noticed a lack of ambition amongst fellow entrepreneurs at The Nest, which she attributes to a lack of shared local success stories.  A societal culture that discourages sharing failure is also preventing the sector from learning from its mistakes.  

By bringing business, universities, the public sector, business angels, NGOs and the general public together, Albors and Social Nest aim to support entrepreneurs through these challenges and share experiences that can help them to envision the system changing potential of their ideas. The Nest will support many more social ventures to scale, and inspire new ways of working to address the economic and social challenges that Spain will inevitably face over the coming decades.