In Interviews with Top 100 Women in Social Enterprise

Who is Ulla Engelmann?

Ulla Engelmann works in DG GROW the European Commission’s Directorate-General for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs. Since March 16, 2021, she is the Head of Unit for Industrial Forum, Alliances, Clusters. She is also the acting Director for the Directorate for Networks and Governance. Previously, she was the Head of Unit for Advanced Technologies, Clusters and Social Economy. Since the beginning of 2017, she has worked on European Cluster Policy, Social Economy, Digital Transformation as well as Women Entrepreneurship and Entrepreneurship education.

Her career in the European Commission began in 1993 when she joined the Joint Research Centre (JRC), the in-house science service of the European Commission. She started in the JRC in Ispra (Italy) in 1993 as a post-doc in nuclear fusion research, building on her academic background in radiochemistry and nuclear engineering.

Ulla’s road from being a nuclear chemist to a renown policy-maker in the area of social entrepreneurship began while she was working in the JRC. She felt that there was a need to improve communication and raise awareness of the work being done by the science community. 

“I found it important to communicate that the European Commission has an in-house science service and I think that facts matter. This has become even more important in the last few years when it became clear that some people try to have alternative facts, that do not exist. Facts matter and science is there to help deliver these facts and support policy-making.”

What does she do? 

Ulla entered the world the of policy-making through her work in Communication and Engagement. She maintained this focus throughout her career in Brussels. Her work fosters engagement and community-building through creating environments for real dialogue between the stakeholders in the social enterprise ecosystem. She stressed the importance of building trust and listening to input from the impact practitioners on the ground. A actively collaborating with social entrepreneurs and regional policy-makers is particularly important because of the diversity of languages and definitions of social enterprises across Europe. Understanding the needs of practitioners and successful implementation of efforts by the European Commission is dependent on active participation of local practitioners. To give an example, Ulla mentioned the European Social Economy Regions (ESER) initiative. The ESER was launched in 2018 to raise visibility of social enterprises and connect practitioners with policy-makers. 

“On the ground, if you have social enterprises in touch with the local authorities then they can create mutually beneficial relationships and exchange. Nevertheless, often when people are on the same ground, they do not necessarily talk to each other and you need a third party to bring them together. That is where we brought the European dimension and the European Social Economy Regions became kind of a game changer.”

Over the last three years, the ESER has developed into a powerful social economy community of practitioners across Europe. It has generated over 100 new regional and local partnerships on social economy without any financial support provided by the European Commission. The ESER community has also become an important partner of the European Commission in co-creation and co-construction of EU policies in the field of social economy.  

What is her biggest achievement?

Besides the success of the ESER initiative, Ulla considers her collaboration with the European Cluster Alliance during the Covid-19 crisis as a big achievement. She recalled an instance when the Alliance contacted her team regarding lack of protective materials such as masks and ventilators. An idea arose to obtain the needed materials with the use of 3D-printing. In collaboration with the with the European Cluster Alliance, they launched an informal call looking for 3D-printing of protective gear. Within three weeks, they received 1100 offers. Ulla recalls with a smile: 

“It was so positive. Some people got back to us saying: I have a 3D printer at home, what can I do?” Most replies, however, were from companies who were ready to deliver. Particularly in Spain, we saw that some clusters there were crowdfunding to get the materials for printing and bringing them directly to the hospitals. It really made a deference and that is something I am very proud of.”

What is her advice for Aspiring Female Entrepreneurs? 

Ulla says that the reason she has been successful in her carrier is because she has always loved what she does. She does not feel like her job is a burden. In contrary, she was always convinced that her work was contributing to something big. When asked about her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, she said:

“Just do it! Be intrapreneurial in your current job, try to do a project and see how far you get. Even if you do not complete it, you learn something from it for you next project. Be persistent and stop doubting yourself.” 

See more interviews with changemakers from the Top 100 Women in Social Enterprise List HERE.

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