What Is Social Enterprise?

I found myself recently speaking with a lot of new people. One conversation stands out in particular, and it went a little like this:

“So, what do you do?”

“I am a social entrepreneur.”

“I’ve heard that bandied about. What does that really mean?”

And so I went into an explanation of social entrepreneurship, but because this person was a leader in the non-profit sector, I thought it might be important to write a post. Social entrepreneurs look to put an end to the intractable social challenges in society by using innovative approaches. They are able to meld the for-profit and non-profit sectors and extrapolate the best ideas, concepts and practices in order to work to improve society.

As in business ventures, social entrepreneurs may measure success in terms of profit and return, but their business model includes performance measurements on the impact of their work on society and, typically, they are looking to do this to scale. Social enterprise can be executed as a for-profit or charitable venture.

One of the most prominent modern social entrepreneurs is Grameen Bank, which was founded by Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus. Grameen Bank pioneered micro-credit and micro-financing in Bangladesh. Incredibly, the bank has provided $4.7 billion in loans to 4.4 million families who live in rural villages and are the poorest of the poor.

An example of a leading charitable social entrepreneurship is Ashoka. Ashoka’s mission supports social entrepreneurs who are seeking to be “changemakers”. Established leading companies – not looking to be left behind with regard to doing social good – such as Disney, Google, and Microsoft have all effectively incorporated social responsibility into their business models and for that, they are recognized as global leaders.

I have told this story repeatedly – when I saw the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, just like everyone else, I was shocked by the ferocity and devastation that occurred. I could not believe that over 230,000 people who were simply going about their day lost their lives. And, when I saw the television image of a single shoe washing ashore, I was overwhelmed with the thought that perhaps someone had been walking in that shoe before it was washed out to sea.

Did the person live?

I will never know the answer to that question, but it changed my life because I decided I was in a position to help people. As a professional in the shoe business, I knew how to procure shoes and send them to the people who needed them most.

There are hundreds of thousands of young and seasoned professionals who have decided that it is important to do business, but also tie those ventures to making a significant impact on the lives of people. For me, there is no reason anyone walking this earth should not have a pair of shoes. For others, it is making sure people have food or medicine. Still, for others, it is the legacy we will leave on the environment and future generations.

Social entrepreneurship is all about solutions. It is getting beyond the challenges and problems that exist and figuring out ways to make things happen for the better. More and more graduate schools are graduating social entrepreneurs, and I am looking forward to seeing people find opportunity not only for themselves, but others.

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