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Radical cultural entrepreneurship

How do social enterprises emerge in ‘extreme’ situations? Research from Cambridge Judge and Naples University examines how a social cooperative launched in a mafia-riddled town in southern Italy.

Ercolano, Italy

Ercolano, Italy

How do organisations that operate in extreme situations legitimise themselves? One way is through a concept of “radical cultural entrepreneurship” – as outlined in a new conference paper from Cambridge Judge Business School and Naples University that focuses on an area of southern Italy long known as a mafia stronghold.

Located near Naples, the town of Ercolano has about 50,000 people and boasts gorgeous views of Mount Vesuvius and the archaeological site of ancient Herculaneum – but for decades has been known for mafia connections including drug trafficking, contract killing and protection racket extortion by the Camorra, as the local mafia is known.

An unconventional social enterprise emerged in recent years from this traumatic backdrop to tackle some of the social ills stemming from organised crime’s lock on Ercolano. Cooperativa Siani provided new opportunities to local youth including educational activities and awareness-raising workshops, began an anti-mafia Internet radio station, and then expanded to agricultural activities including production of honey and tomatoes.

The new research article focuses on Cooperativa Siani, analysing how disruptive innovation, marketing and narrative strategies are often required in what the authors term “radical cultural entrepreneurship”.

Lilia Giugni

Dr Lilia Giugni

The article – entitled “A social enterprise in Gomorrah-land: a tale of radical cultural entrepreneurship and social innovation management” – was co-authored by Lilia Giugni, postdoctoral Research Fellow and Teaching Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School; Neil Stott, Co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation; and Roberto Vona of the Department of Economics at Federico II, Naples University.

Lilia Giugni recently presented the research paper at the Sinergie-SIMA 2018 Conference in Venice. Lilia is a native of the Naples region, and conducted three research field trips to Ercolano, conducting more than 60 interviews and operating as both an observer and participant at Cooperative Siani.

Lilia discusses here some of the new paper’s findings and conclusions:

The deep-seated problems of a community like Ercolano actually provide opportunities for social innovation. The high rate of local unemployment translated into a readily available workforce for the agricultural activities of Cooperative Siani. The cooperative began operations out of a flat once owned by a mafia boss, which was confiscated by the Italian authorities and donated to social enterprise through an anti-mafia law, and their honey and tomato farm was also seized from a criminal family. It’s to Cooperativa Siani’s credit that its founders decided to exploit these opportunities.

Cooperativa Siani faced enormous legitimation challenges. The cooperative needed buy-in from many different audiences including consumers for its agricultural products and business partners such as retailers. They also needed to ensure that, as an anti-mafia cooperative, their personal activities didn’t raise any suspicions or credibility issues.

A key to the cooperative’s radical cultural entrepreneurship was to base its mission on locally grounded innovation. While billing itself as an anti-mafia organisation, the cooperative also needed to be seen as creating economic opportunity for the entire town. So the founders struck important relationships with local business owners and institutions such as Ercolano’s City Council and the local carabinieri or Italian military police. This required a delicate balance: appearing to the ultimate anti-mafia activists and marketing themselves as reliable business owners.

Language and images were very important for the cooperative’s legitimacy. Tomatoes produced by the coop were nick-named pizzini, dialect for small, pointed objects, but also an infamous term for the messages Sicilian mafia affiliates used to communicate. The cooperative also reminded consumers of its anti-mafia credentials by including on all its jars and labels the face of Giancarlo Siani, a Neopolitan journalist murdered by the Camorra after whom the cooperative was named.