Social Entrepreneurship: What Does it Mean?

The term “social entrepreneurship” is often tossed around, but what does it really mean?  A social entrepreneur is essentially an advocate, or better yet, a catalyst for progress who is motivated by social value instead of  just profit.  Though the social entrepreneur’s venture may yield monetary benefits, s/he is primarily focused on the production of social capital, such as promoting the benefit of humankind or the environment.

A notable social entrepreneur from history is John Woolman, a Quaker from colonial America who argued and preached against animal cruelty and fought for the abolition of slavery. Woolman sought to make early America a better place.

Social entrepreneurs are skilled at identifying subtleties within a system that demand change. Such changes are not always a quick fix, but rather a lasting solution to permanent problems.  Social entrepreneurs make such lasting transformations by putting in place organizations to address certain social problems, such as unplanned pregnancies or crippling childhood illnesses like Polio.

A present-day example of a social entrepreneur is Harish Hande, who founded India’s leading solar technology company in 1995, bringing sustainable energy to over 120,000 households.  Entrepreneurs like Hande recognize a need for social change, and then develop and carry out a plan to make it happen. A differentiating factor for Hande is that he actually implemented his ideas (socially helpful or not), while others just have ideas.

What is interesting about social entrepreneurship is that it exists at the intersection between two seemingly opposing value systems: social progress and business. Though many entrepreneurs seek to maximize only profit, the social entrepreneur is motivated by the need for a perceived change.  The social entrepreneur sees business as an opportunity to create lasting social change by leveraging the power of a good business plan.

Many consider the non-profit firm as a prime example of social entrepreneurship. This may be true, but without a business model to sustain the non-profit, the viability of the entity is suspect let alone the potential good its mission might bring to society.

Finally, to confuse matters even more, isn’t ordinary new creation an example of social entrepreneurship? The impact of a new venture is more than than just economic. A new venture can empower its employees with income and confidence; this allows the employees to contribute to society during off hours to make the world a better place.  For example, the fully employed worker might work at a homeless shelter on weekends. What is more socially important than that?

John Bradley Jackson
Director, Center for Entrepreneurship


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