Geri Stengel

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What is a social entrepreneur?

"What is a social entrepreneur?" Now that is a really difficult question. First, you have decide what an entrepreneur is. Then you have to decide what qualifies as social entrepreneurship.

Neither task is easy.

What is an entrepreneur, other than a big French word?
To some, an entrepreneur is anyone who starts a business, whether it's a 10-year-old with a lemonade stand or the guys who founded Google.

The first exhibits risk-taking initiative, which is one common answer to the question "What is a social entrepreneur?" Anyone who starts a business falls into this definition. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin epitomize the more academic definition of entrepreneur. By that standard, the definition of an entrepreneur has to include innovation in the development, production, use, marketing or distribution of a product or service.

In order words, an entrepreneur does something new or different that makes money.

A little simplistic but it'll do for the moment.

What is a social entrepreneur?

entrepreneur, innovation, innovative, social change, social entrepreneurship, social responsibility, what is a social entrepreneurNow let's make it tougher by asking what is a social entrepreneur? The easy answer is someone who does something innovative that helps society.

We need to put a little flesh on those bones. Some might say Google helps society and it certainly is innovative but is it a social enterprise? I don't think so. Maybe a socially responsible enterprise but not a social enterprise.

The more academic and stringent answer to the question "what is a social entrepreneur?" includes a number of requirements:

  • innovative
  • sustainable
  • solves a pressing social problem
  • fundamentally changes society
  • uses business techniques

Now we're talking about Tim McCollum and Brett Beach of Madécasse, who moved the production of fine chocolate closer to the farmers of Madagascar so the farmers could reap more of the profits. Or Steve Kallaugher, who uses his business acumen to set up Young Heroes, which collects donations to support orphans in Swaziland.

The Citizen Sector
Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka, adds another twist when answering the question, "What is a social entrepreneur?" He talks about the citizen sector as distinct from the government, private, or non profit sectors.

"We believe that when one or several people get together to cause positive social change, they instantly become citizens in the fullest sense of the word," Drayton says.

His answer to the question "What is a social entrepreneur?" adds the concepts of ethical, user-friendly, understandable and attract large-scale support in addition to sustainable, innovative and so on.

Other answers to the question add such ideas as mission- or cause-driven and that profits are put back into the betterment of the community in some way.

Can social entrepreneurship just be good, clean fun that helps someone other than yourself? A business you enjoy that also helps a depressed economy? Or does it have to be lofty and big and brimming with idealism and self-sacrifice?

What do you think? Does a social entrepreneur have to make large-scale social changes or are changes in a few lives enough?  Can it be fun? Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur? Why? Why not?