Social Enterprises: Taking a Well Traveled Road versus Blazing a New Trail
Social Enterprises: Taking a Well Traveled Road versus Blazing a New Trailback

Last week, I attended the 6th Annual Conference of Social Entrepreneurs at NYU Stern’s Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. My big take away: Sometimes the past provides a road map for the future and sometimes you need to blaze a new trail.

That the past may provide a road map for the future was made clear by a provocative observation as the conference opened.
William J. Baumol, Academic Director of the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and Harold Price, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Economics, noted that modern economies have much to learn from the economies of ancient China. Many innovations (compass, printing, paper, explosives, silk, embroidery, medicine and toys, such as the yo-yo, the top, and playing cards) came from ancient China, yet it was the economies of England and Spain that flourished.
The lesson: Too many rules and regulations stifle economic growth.
That new trails must be blazed was clear from the presentation of Paul Light, Professor of New York University’s Wagner School of Public Policy. He posed the question: Can some social enterprises scale up through acquisition? For me, lessons can be drawn from those who have partnered, through acquisition or merger, successfully as well as from those who have done it badly, in both the for-profit and nonprofit worlds.
The key to success is cultural fit. As the field of social enterprise develops, it will devise its own rules of the road but those rules will build upon lessons learned from the many for-profits and nonprofits that have succeeded – or failed – at mergers and acquisitions.
The lesson: New partnerships can bring growth, but cultural fit is essential.
As an entrepreneur gone social entrepreneur, I was particularly interested in the need for research on social entrepreneurship by Tom Lumpkin, Professor of Entrepreneurship at Syracuse. Most provocative was his assertion that social entrepreneurs might actually change the entrepreneurial process. That’s exciting!
My experience as a seasoned entrepreneur and as a startup leads me at the moment to focus on similarities, rather than differences. Social enterprise is a new field without a long track record, so I’m looking for best practices and lessons learned in other enterprises that I can immediately put to work. I’m relying on entrepreneurial methods that I customize to suit the social-impact world.
Social entrepreneurs are blazing new trails, but the tools are primarily those of entrepreneurs. I’m encouraged that more specific tools might be coming down the pike from the academic researchers I met at NYU’s Social Entrepreneurs Conference.
The lesson: Adapting the old techniques to fit new ideals will create a new way of doing business, the social enterprise way.
To all you social entrepreneurs out there, are you modifying old tools or making up new ones as you go along?