Dr Alasdair Harris is the founder of Blue Ventures, an award winning marine conservation charity and social enterprise, providing evidence-based conservation work and volunteer placements to help support local conservation efforts. He has an MSc in Environmental Change and Management from the University of Oxford.
What is your background? Why are you doing this?
While at Oxford, I was chairman of the University Exploration Club, supporting and running overseas expeditions. As a marine biologist I had an unhealthy obsession with coral reefs, and these trips gave me the opportunity to visit some of the world’s remotest and wildest coasts. They also taught me a lot about leadership, or – perhaps more accurately – how not to lead a team. After Oxford I set up Blue Ventures as a way of continuing the work the expeditions had begun, funding grassroots marine conservation through a social business.
To me entrepreneurship is about disruption and the refusal to accept systems that are failing to address needs and opportunities. It’s a restless desire to tackle inefficiencies in the way society operates.
It really began as a crisis of conscience. As someone motivated by natural history and biodiversity, my studies as an ecologist had brought me face to face with a global extinction crisis. I knew I couldn’t spend my career documenting extinction alone – clearly reversing the declines in biodiversity would need immediate practical action. During my doctoral research I started to recognise that if I really wanted to create meaningful change, I would need to step outside the confines of the ivory tower to embark on something practical and applied.
So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Communication is essential, whether I’m speaking to investors, employees or partner organisations. This means being able to be able to sell a vision, and define the endgame; describing what success looks like. Risk taking and pragmatism are also essential. Recognising that there’ll never be an ideal time to launch that next venture, and that I’ll never know enough to mitigate all the risks. Finally, learn to delegate. As no matter how many hours we put in, we can never get there alone.
Doing something that really matters. We’ve helped set up some of the world’s largest locally run marine conservation areas; we provide weekly healthcare and education to tens thousands of people; we’ve innovated new models to address global marine conservation challenges. And beyond the meaningful impact of our work I love working with a team that is driven by our mission. We employ excellent people, who are totally dedicated to our cause.
What individual, company or organisation inspires you most? Why?
Bryan Stevenson, Equal Justice Initiative. Extraordinary, inspirational warriors against injustice.
How can we best show young people today the power of the individual to act against inequality, and to change a system against all the odds?
Seeing peers or staff develop and grow into our leaders and greatest advocates. One of my colleagues, who joined us as a young law graduate from Antananarivo in Madagascar, became the first female Malagasy national to go to Cambridge. She’s now fighting for fairer international agreements around fishing in developing coastal states. Seeing her graduate was a very special moment – and highlighted the human legacy of what we’re achieving.
We work in a very challenging environment, often facing intractable environmental and social challenges. This can be overwhelming, and make it hard to maintain motivation when the odds seem so stacked against our movement. But perseverance has always paid off, and so far we’ve always made it through adversity, with some incredible results.
What challenges do you face as a social entrepreneur, as opposed to a “traditional” entrepreneur?
It can be hard to do well while doing good. There’s usually less profit, tighter margins, and it can be hard to attract and retain talent when competing with the private sector. But these challenges force us to be efficient, innovative, and to demonstrate real impact in communicating our work to our partners and clients.
Don’t be in a hurry to get stuck in to a conventional “career”. Take your time, explore your options, and remember that the things you do now will differentiate you from the crowd later. University is a safe space to take risks; the best place to fail and try again.
EnSpire Oxford is a University of Oxford initiative to help connect people to the entrepreneurship resources they need, and to promote entrepreneurship across Oxfordshire.
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