The Work of Early Social Entrepreneurs

In working on another project, I came across this article about Rodney Sampson’s new book that, among other things, positions Martin Luther King, Jr. as a “social entrepreneur.”  Dr. King is not the first historical figure to be graced with the title of social entrepreneur.  John Muir, Florence Nightingale and others have also been remembered as such.

With social entrepreneurship being a relatively new idea, emerging during the 1980’s and 1990’s,  I find these references to the past intriguing. If entrepreneurship is driven by new and unconventional approaches, why tie social entrepreneurship to idols of our past?

Sociologists tell us that identities (both individual and collective) are social projects and as such are formed by situating ourselves within social and historical contexts.   References to figures such as MLK and John Muir are thus likely a part of social entrepreneurs’  identity creation process.  Still, why reference social and political heroes when the social entrepreneur has been positioned as the “capitalist savior” stepping in to save the public sector from itself (as discussed briefly in my earlier post on this topic)?

While not overly familiar with the literature on collective memory, I am aware of one theoretical thread within this work that suggests our past is constructed to address the problems and needs we face in the present.*  From this perspective, it seems the historical references mentioned above can shed light on the challenges faced by contemporary social entrepreneurs—challenges that tend to be overlooked or understated (perhaps because they threaten a widely-held cultural belief in the boundless potential of the private sector to address social concerns).  Examples of such challenges include whether and how social entrepreneurs can overcome the ideological divides that currently separate the public and private sectors, how they can insert the essential entrepreneurial element of risk into a relatively risk-averse setting and how they can bolster support in the face of very few stories of success.

I am still very early in my thought process on this topic (and welcome other ideas and thoughts!), but I posit that ‘early social entrepreneurs’ are being used to address such challenges.  MLK, Muir and Nightingale are doing the cultural work needed to facilitate the trust and hope essential to the success of social entrepreneurship; they are something in which people can believe, even if social entrepreneurship itself might not be quite there yet. In this way, these historical references suggest that social entrepreneurship, to be successful, not only requires economic resources but social and cultural resources as well.

*For more on collective memory, see Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi and Levy’s text  

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6 thoughts on “The Work of Early Social Entrepreneurs

  1. This is interesting, because these three examples all proposed public solutions to social problems. Maybe I am having trouble telling the difference between “social responsibility” and “social entrepreneurs”, but it seems that Sampson is using Kings name to advocate social responsibility but pinning it to the coattails of social entrepreneurs. But I agree with your assessment that they are hoping to use these historical figures to legitimate their identity, though I am not sure how good of a fit it is. Do you think that MLK, Muir, and Nightingale are early entrepreneurs?

  2. I think you are right about Sampson, although I don’t think his commentary is very different from other dialogue on social entrepreneurship. What’s so interesting is that social entrepreneurs come from and have the support of individuals in the private sector and in the public/nonprofit sectors. To me, that makes the lines between social responsibility and social entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship very blurry. I actually think that is what makes it both exciting and dangerous (I’m hoping to write another post on this soon).

    As far as whether or not MLK, Muir and Nightingale are entrepreneurs, at first glance I tend to think not. However, I think entrepreneur is a vague term that can be, and often is, interpreted differently within different contexts. Therefore, I’m not sure we could say that these individuals were not entrepreneurs, or perhaps more accurately, that they will not be remembered as entrepreneurs now or in the future.

  3. I look forward to hearing more about this. Social entrepreneurship is such a buzzword, especially in international development (which I am more familiar with) but I tend to be suspicious of people throwing around the word. I would definitely be interested in knowing if you have found any successful models of social entrepreneurship.

  4. I couldn’t agree more! I’m extremely skeptical, and that’s why I want to look deeper at it. I think there is a lot of hype around social entrepreneurship, yet I really don’t think it can live up to most of it. I think it is interesting that society seemingly wants to believe in the social entrepreneur, and I want to understand why. Is it driven by our cultural values, is it the current economic and political context or is it simply a nice bandaid to use instead of creating meaningful economic and social policies that address the substantial social problems in this country (or all of the above)? Plus, I think social entrepreneurship is just a good case study for looking at how economic and cultural aspects of our society interact with one another.

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

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