What is a Social Entrepreneur?

I have recently become fascinated with the concept of “social entrepreneurship.”  While new to me, social entrepreneurship has reportedly been around for over a century, dating back to historical figures such as John Muir and Florence Nightingale.  The term has gained new momentum over the past decade, emerging as a buzzword in the media, in politics and in business.  As a neophyte in the world of social entrepreneurship, I have been interested in gaining a better understanding of the concept and what it may mean in today’s tumultuous economy.

So, what is a social entrepreneur?  The definition of social entrepreneurship is rather vague and dynamic.  A few recent attempts at defining social entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurship illustrate its fluid nature:

  • Social entrepreneurship is about “how business and management skills can be applied to achieve social ends”—David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas
  • “Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.”—Ashoka, pioneer organization in the field of social entrepreneurship
  • “The social entrepreneur should be understood as someone who targets an unfortunate but stable equilibrium that causes the neglect, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity; who brings to bear on this situation his or her inspiration, direct action, creativity, courage, and fortitude; and who aims for and ultimately affects the establishment of a new stable equilibrium that secures permanent benefit for the targeted group and society at large.”—Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg from the Skoll Foundation
  • “Every entrepreneur is a social entrepreneur…a successful entrepreneur…creates wealth—and without wealth there is no surplus capital to turn over to charitable activity.”—Carl J. Schramm, former president of the Kauffman Foundation

How can we understand such a vague and varied definition? While the definition likely reflects the nascent stage of social entrepreneurship in contemporary society, there are a few interesting themes that emerge even within the small sample above.

First is the way in which the language of capitalism is used. Terms such as innovation, management, even entrepreneur itself, serve to bolster the credibility of the field of social entrepreneurship.  This language suggests that the public-private collaboration is skewed slightly in one direction. Social projects are not viewed as improving business; rather, business resources and expertise are being “applied to” social projects.  Capitalism is portrayed as saving the unproductive, disorganized and inefficient social sector by providing the resources, discipline and talent needed to achieve social goals.  The “borrowing” of these concepts not only provides insight into the field of social entrepreneurship but also reflects the broader value placed on capitalism within American culture.

The second theme suggests a largely symbolic role for the social entrepreneur. From the definitions above, this individual appears to be simultaneously a shrewd and efficient businessperson, an innovator and a revolutionary capable of initiating and implementing wide-scale social change. That is a high bar.  Perhaps, this “catch-all” description creates a symbolic hero whose primary function is to assuage fear and anger at a time when real action in the social sector is limited by budget cuts and a forceful ideology of individualism. This is not to say that the social entrepreneur and its recent hype do not have impact; rather, I am suggesting that its primary function is symbolic.  As discussed above, the narrative of the social entrepreneur “saving” the social sector likely reflects a genuine underlying belief that an entrepreneurial model, when applied toward new goals, can achieve great change.  Therefore, while the social entrepreneur, in its current form, may be unrealistic, it may be useful in setting the cultural stage for a more realistic public-private collaboration model in the future.

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3 thoughts on “What is a Social Entrepreneur?

  1. I have often felt that social entrepreneurs get so much attention as a way to “prove” that the private sector and capitalist models can out perform public sector models. But I feel that business models are inherently discriminating because you can’t invest in dead-end cases. It is much easier for social entrepreneurs to tackle narrowly focused and easily remedied social problems–specific material needs, medical treatment, teaching new skills, etc. But I believe that only the public sector can offer systemic solutions to social problems. Social entrepreneurship is great at filling market niches, but the symbolic role of “savior” reinforces the superiority of the capitalist/private sector model and further undermines the public sector. Leading to more budget cuts and suspicion and inevitable more social problems for these social entrepreneurs to solve. A social entrepreneur should come along and make symbolic heros out of public sector success cases.

  2. Pingback: The Work of Early Social Entrepreneurs « Farther Shores

  3. Pingback: Social Entrepreneurship and Empathetic Alienation | The Fifth Floor

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