What is Social Entrepreneurship?

Social Entrepreneurship is both a philosophy and a practice.  Philosophically it takes a cue from Jean Baptiste Say, one of the intellectual godfathers of entrepreneurship:

Social Entrepreneurship “is a way of moving resources from low yield activities to high yield activities”, with the specific goal of addressing social and environmental problems and challenges we face today. 

As an practice we see it across the global, in the non-governmental, non-profit, for-profit, and government sectors.  It varies in scope from world-changing to neighborhood changing. 

Social Entrepreneurship is about innovation and creating value.

Social Entrepreneurship is about innovation and creating value.

The beauty of it is that regardless of one’s immediate resources, it is accessible.  It is a worldview and a type of leadership that mines the natural capital and resources that are available in communities and finds ways to unleash them.  It understands that power comes in many forms, not just economic or political power, but also intellectual capital, the passion and engagement of individuals, and social capital.  It works whether one is trying to promote positive change from the top down, the bottom up, the “grass tops” work of community leaders, or through coalitions.

Social entrepreneurship isn’t always about creating new organizations; it includes a range of entrepreneurially-minded activities that include innovation, invention, adoption, and adaptation.  It might be in the form of:

  • Developing new/better goods or services, like solar powered light-bulbs for consumers in the developing world
  • New methods of production, like developing a way of creating durable family housing solutions for $300 or less
  • Adopting existing solutions to underserved markets, like microfinance
  • Creating new forms of supply, like organic farmers partnering with urban businesses to divert waste from the trash to composters, or
  • New forms of organization, including new strategic partnerships or alliances, like Denver’s Road Home, a national model for how to bring for-profit, non-profit, and government organizations together to address homelessness.

Social entrepreneurship, in it’s highest and best form, is about developing solutions that are practical, scalable, cost-effective, politically rooted, and sustainable that will make better use of the resources available and gain the necessary support to make some headway addressing our pressing social and environmental problems.

So how do corporations play into all of this?  Some types of corporate social responsibility engage in social entrepreneurship through their strategic alliances and cause marketing.  Other corporations harness the power of social entrepreneurship in the research and development departments by finding new ways of making right-sized, right priced goods and services for the bottom billion or people who survive on $1 or less per day.  Corporations face increased pressure daily to be better corporate citizens; improve their corporate social responsibility initiatives; consider both people and the planet as well as profits when there are thinking about their bottom line (aka the triple bottom line); and, as they compete for the best employees and seek new business partnerships, they are increasingly having to look inward to make their mission and vision more compelling.

The philosophy side of being a social entrepreneur is relevant to corporate leadership today because it pushes them to consider where they can increase the amount of value they are offering to their customers, their employees and the world.   The practical side of social entrepreneurship offers corporate leaders innovative new ways of thinking about their products, services, modes of production and supply, markets, and ultimately their raison d’être, or reason for being.

Innovation is the lifeblood of value creation, and afterall, isn’t that what all organizations are seeking around the world? Social entrepreneurship as a container offers people across sectors and motivations new ways of contributing and creating value.  We are all winners when we can harness the spirit of social entrepreneurship and use it to help us achieve excellence in our endeavors.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Categories: Corporate Social Responsibility, For-Profit, Government, Non-Profit, Social Entrepreneurship


Social entrepreneur, strategist, educator, writer, coach and facilitator. "The leadership that is required in this moment in history is a leadership of generosity, of humility, of self-offering. To lead we need not know the answers. We must only convene the circles, articulate the questions, frame the conversation, and direct attention to the issues that matter." - Jan Phillips

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