The term “social entrepreneur” is used widely in both the business context and that of social volunteering, and for this reason it can be difficult to pin down a distinct definition of “social entrepreneurship.” Some entities like The Skoll Foundation aim to invest in social entrepreneurs, which they define as “society’s change agents: creators of innovations that disrupt the status quo and transform our world for the better.”
So what makes a social entrepreneur? Can it be taught? The Said Business School – an entrepreneurial business school launched in 2003 – clearly believes so. Even so, there are a few qualities that social entrepreneurs share, according to International Journal of Public Sector Management contributor John L. Thompson.
- Social entrepreneurs find gaps where needs are not being met. Where business entrepreneurs see an untapped market, social entrepreneurs see an unmet social need. Many social entrepreneurs have a personal stake or experience with this need; Oprah Winfrey, for example, has often cited her childhood years in rural poverty as a key motivation for her many charitable projects.
- Social entrepreneurs address this need with creativity and imagination. The way things have always been done is not enough anymore for social entrepreneurs: why else would there be the need in the first place? Social entrepreneur Jane Chen was pursuing an M.B.A. at Stanford when she teamed up with a graduate student class at Stanford to develop an infant warmer that helps stabilize a newborn’s body temperature; the infant warmer only needs 30 minutes of charge to maintain warmth for over 4 hours.
- Social entrepreneurs build networks by recruiting other people to the cause. These networks are often irresistibly contagious and use a combination of brilliant marketing and engaging every consumer. People who buy TOMS don’t just buy a pair of shoes, TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie says, “They’re kind of joining a movement. And they want to participate in that…. That’s the best type of marketing you can have.”
- Social entrepreneurs are able to successfully secure the resources they need. The Borgen Project founder Clint Borgen worked on a fishing vessel to secure start-up capital; TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie sold his online drivers’ education software company. Social entrepreneurs have enough savvy to locate what they need to begin their ventures, whether this comes in the form of “cashing in” what assets they do have, receiving generous seed money, or working extra jobs and long hours.
- Social entrepreneurs overcome obstacles that their specific need presents. Leticia Casanueva, founder and executive director of Crea — a nonprofit social enterprise offering business development services to women seeking to start their own business ventures in Mexico — writes that Crea itself had a number of challenges in starting, the chief of which being “the inflexibility of laws that inhibit innovation and investment in social enterprises.” The way Crea was able to overcome this was, in short, to “have a board full of lawyers” to work out every legal nuance. Every enterprise has a context, and the successful social entrepreneur learns to navigate it.
- Social entrepreneurs introduce systems to make the venture sustainable and accountable. While many social enterprises shy away from the reputation of being “for-profit,” most agree that the best answer to global poverty is the development of the target market’s economy. Jordan Kassalow, for example, partnered an eyeglasses-donation drive with the development of a network of in-country distributors operating similarly to the Mary-Kay consultant model. VisionSpring utilizes a “high volume, low margin” approach that also offers higher margin products (custom frames, etc.) for higher-spending customers in-country all while providing vision-related services.
On the whole, social entrepreneurs operate very similarly to business entrepreneurs; they must be connected to a specific need, savvy with securing capital, be able to address challenges, and design a system that is able to sustain itself. What Thompson says is the difference, however, “is a strong commitment to help others in some way.”
– Naomi Doraisamy