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Mind the gap: exploring the intersecting viewpoints of social entrepreneurs and universities in the ecosystem in support of sustainability

A multi-country study

Published onApr 16, 2024
Mind the gap: exploring the intersecting viewpoints of social entrepreneurs and universities in the ecosystem in support of sustainability
Evelina Van Mensel1,2*, Nikolay A. Dentchev1,3, Zornitsa Yordanova3, Andrea Samaniego Diaz1, Edgar Izquierdo4
1 Vrije Universiteit Brussel;
2 American University in Bulgaria;  
3University of National and World Economy;
*[email protected]

Extended abstract

 Social entrepreneurs (SEs) apply innovative business models to solve social and environmental problems, thus making significant contributions to society (Zahra et al., 2009). In doing so they face various significant challenges, most often related to access to funding, attraction and retention of human resources, professional management, networking, scaling social impact, impact measurement, acquiring legitimacy, mission drift (Gonzalez, Dentchev and Roig, 2020). These challenges seriously hinder the social impact SEs could create (Autio et al., 2014). Entrepreneurial ecosystems are viewed as support mechanisms to help social entrepreneurs to overcome these challenges (Roundy, 2017). Among the important actors of the ecosystem, universities are seen as valuable partners to SEs in their pursuit of building more sustainable business models (Fichter and Tiemann, 2018; Wakkee et al., 2019; Cai and Ahmad, 2023). However, the role of universities in the supportive ecosystem for SEs remains an under-researched phenomenon (Rice, Fetters and Greene, 2010; Tornatzky and Rideout, 2014; Thomsen, Muurlink and Best, 2018), especially in developing economies (Wakkee et al., 2019; Gupta et al., 2020). The variety of universities and supporting activities applied not always corresponds to what entrepreneurs need. According to Theodoraki, Messeghem and Rice (2018, p. 154):

„Whereas the previous literature has identified gaps among universities, ecosystems, and networks, those studies focused primarily on the number and nature of relationships from the perspective of innovative firms (Clarysse et al., 2014; Hayter, 2016). To provide more in-depth knowledge and address this theoretical gap, studies should explore the intersecting viewpoints of different ecosystem actors in different contexts.“

To answer this call we perform gap analysis by collecting quantitative data from the viewpoints of social entrepreneurs and university representatives from an international alliance – ELANET, the European Latin American Network in support of SEs. With their network of 17 partners and 35 associated partners from various organizations and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in Europe and Latin America, this Erasmus+ project is dedicated to establishing and addressing SE’s needs. The geographical context will shed light on the gap between specific challenges for SEs and the support mechanisms applied in both developed and developing economies.

In response to calls for more quantitative studies in the ecosystems in support of sustainability literature (Fichter and Tiemann, 2018; Gupta et al., 2020), we adopt quantitative research methodology. The purpose of this research is to identify gaps between the needs of social entrepreneurs and the supportive capacity of universities. To achieve this goal, we deploy a two-survey instrument to SEs and to university representatives. One of these instruments was intended to examine the main challenges faced by entrepreneurs and competencies they exhibit while initiating and operating their ventures. It also aimed to collect their opinions about the support offered to social entrepreneurs (SEs) by universities. As the final objective is to perform a gap analysis, the second instrument addressed the perceptions of universities' respondents regarding the needs of SEs and the capacities of higher education institutions (HEIs) to assist them in their entrepreneurial initiatives. Questions were asked to SEs and HEIs´ members, in which they had to rate universities in relation to activities and strategies developed by HEIs to support social entrepreneurship initiatives. A 10-point scale was used to measure the level of agreement with 26 items. As a result, we have received 790 responses from HEIs and 715 from social entrepreneurs.

Preliminary findings reveal that when inquired about the type of stakeholders and how important they are to support them in their entrepreneurial initiatives, only 9.50% of SEs chose universities as the most important stakeholder:





Governmental organizations  




International non-for-profit organizations




Local non-for-profit organizations




Local large companies 








Table 1. Importance of stakeholders from the SEs´ perspective

Results indicate that university representatives rate relatively high (an average of 7/10) HEIs´ actions oriented to support SEs and to contribute to the development of the social entrepreneurship ecosystem. From the perspective of SEs, however, universities were rated considerably lower - an average of 4/10. Further analysis will reveal the exact areas where this significant gap occurs and whether they differ among the different contexts.


Universities, higher education institutions, social entrepreneurship, support, entrepreneurial ecosystem, sustainability


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