The social entrepreneurship field is growing, exciting, full of potential, but limiting itself, affecting what it could achieve.
This is particularly unfortunate as this field seems to be onto something. For some reasons, it resonates. Author Giles Hutchins states, “It … seems that more and more people feel drawn into a career as a social entrepreneur.” The field is increasingly being heard in the mainstream, and is even popping up in MBA programs, a not-so-obvious place for it.
As a hybrid field, it originally had to overcome significant social and even psychological barriers to the strong category boundaries most of us cling to, i.e. “You’re either a businessperson or a social worker -- you can’t be both.” Yet, ironically, it is remarkably non-self-reflective about where it chooses to aim its main weapon -- innovation -- and where it simply accepts business-as-usual.
Having attended six social entrepreneurship forums and studied their promotional brochures; read several articles about the field, including its main journal (The Stanford Social Innovation Review); moderated a panel (see videos here and here); taken a course; and discussed the field with participants, I see several key ideas still largely missing. A literature search did find a few exceptions, but only enough to be the exceptions that prove the rule, not the critical mass of anomalies that would prompt one’s internal voice to suggest a deep re-think.
Currently, whatever is special and innovative about social entrepreneurs tends to be limited to their one big idea -- the thing which has never been done before -- and, of course, their clear social motive to make a difference in the world. Beyond that, what is discussed in the field is rather conventional and similar to what any entrepreneur would be told.
It would be a tragedy if as increasing numbers of people become successful social entrepreneurs, even if they achieve both “sustainability” as usually defined in this field (see below) and the “scale-up” so important to the field, it still does not sufficiently shake up how significant parts of business and social work are done. That is, if it doesn’t make enough dents in our problems.
For now, it is sufficient to see social entrepreneurs as innovators working at something in between a business and a social-welfare organization, perhaps in individual cases leaning more one way or the other. In short, according to Business Week, they "use business methods to solve social problems.” However, much more needs to be said about its definition, as the inherent ambiguity you might have noticed is both helping and, in its excess, unnecessarily hurting the field (hey, I usually like ambiguity). This will be discussed later in this series. (For the definitionally oriented, a particularly good one is by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.)
But looking ahead, the possibilities that social entrepreneurs can exist inside large companies that are pursuing (but not necessarily leaders yet) in sustainability does not even come up at forums. That possibility is not in the room!
One example of social entrepreneurs is the famous pioneer of micro-finance, the Grameen Bank. Led by Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, their great innovation was showing the conventional wisdom that poor, rural women were poor credit risks and could not be a viable market for banks’ financial services was wrong, and developed a peer-based repayment model. Another is the prominent discoverer, financier, mentor and promoter of other social entrepreneurs, Ashoka.
Next page: 3 assumptions to question
Image credit: CC license by zappowbang/Flickr