What is Social Entrepreneurship?

A social entrepreneur notices a social problem in the world and works to solve it.  Unlike a usual business entrepreneur, a social entrepreneur hopes for “social value” rather than profit.  Many people associate social entrepreneurship with non-profits, but unlike most non-profit organizations, social entrepreneurs focus on both small-scale, immediate effects and large-scale, long-term effects (pbs.org).  Social entrepreneurs throughout history include people like Florence Nightingale and John Muir.

Some for-profit corporations can be social entrepreneurs, but usually this is a side project and the main objective is still profits.  Businesses that operate in line with ethics and law are demonstrating corporate social responsibility.

Many social entrepreneurs take a global approach, and there are different kinds of social entrepreneurship.  Wikipedia lists three major goals that social entrepreneurs promote: social, cultural, and environmental.

Bloomburg Business Week published an article called America’s Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs 2012, in which profiled promising social entrepreneurs that run for-profit businesses.  One example is the Paradigm Project, which sells clean-burning wood or charcoal cook stoves in Kenya and Guatemala.  U.N. sanctioned auditors document saved emissions, which the Paradigm Project sells the carbon offsets the awarded by the auditors.  Another example is InVenture, which helps microfinance borrowers track expenses and report data to lenders via text messages.  This helps the lenders develop credit scores, manage risk, and offer better loan terms to reliable microfinance borrowers.

Good examples of organizations that take social entrepreneurship seriously include ONE, a grassroots advocacy and campaigning organization that works to raise public awareness and pressure political leaders to tackle issues like extreme poverty and preventable disease (one.org).  Ashoka is an example of a nonprofit organization that supports social entrepreneurs, promotes group entrepreneurship, and builds sector infrastructure to help social entrepreneur enact change (ashoka.org).

While social entrepreneurs act on behalf of humanity and have good intentions, it is important to be critical about how we impose our values on other societies and cultures.  History reminds us of this danger, when we consider the experience of Native American children in boarding schools that were designed to “civilize” a “savage” race.  Despite good intentions to educate and “raise up” Native Americans, policymakers and teachers ultimately committed cultural genocide when they forced children to abandon their culture and traditions.

Social entrepreneurs see flaws in the human drama, and take action.  In the words of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful concerned citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

John Bradley Jackson
Director, Center for Entrepreneurship



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