An Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship

February 1, 2012 at 9:25 am 5 comments

Social entrepreneurship has become a major topic in the past few years, seen as a complementary approach to nonprofit, business, and governmental contributions to society (or as a substitute for failures in those areas)—but what is it, exactly?

First, what it isn’t: a business based around social media (like Twitter) or a socially responsible business (like Starbucks).

What is is: any organization that uses business methods to address a social or environmental problem in an innovative way.

Greg Dees, co-founder of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University and a member of the Impact Entrepreneurs advisory board, wrote the definitive definition:

Social entrepreneurs play the role of change agents in the social sector by:
• Adopting a mission to create and sustain social value (not just private value)
• Recognizing and relentlessly pursuing new opportunities to serve that mission
• Engaging in a process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning
• Acting boldly without being limited by resources currently in hand
• Exhibiting heightened accountability to the constituencies served and for the outcomes created

In Portland, a vibrant social enterprise sector has recently emerged. New Avenues for Youth, a local nonprofit, owns Ben & Jerry’s Scoop Shops that provide job training and employment to formerly homeless teens. Fork in the Road Market makes healthy, affordable food available in “food deserts,” neighborhoods without grocery stores. Sustainable Harvest, an importer of organic and Fair Trade coffee, develops iPad apps for use by coffee cooperatives in Africa and Latin America. Each of these organizations applies innovative, business-based solutions to social problems.

Honduran farmer using Sustainable Harvest iPad app

The field has developed so quickly, and social entrepreneurs often find themselves so far ahead of existing funding or legal entity models, that support organizations have had little time to emerge. Only in the last few years have investors, universities, and networks formed to support the first wave of social entrepreneurs and train the next.

Ashoka, Echoing Green, the Schwab Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, and the Unreasonable Institute, among others, support social entrepreneurs worldwide with fellowships and funding. The Benefit Corporation, a new business type created to protect the mission of social enterprises and socially responsible businesses, has been recognized in seven states (but not yet in Oregon). Investor networks have been created to support social enterprises, graduate programs from India to the UK now teach social entrepreneurship, and magazines address the topic.

Here in Portland, Impact Entrepreneurs, part of Portland State University, provides field study opportunities for students and community members to work with social entrepreneurs overseas, an incubation program—including workshops, coaching, and networking—for both startup and established social enterprises, and leadership training for larger organizations.

The field of social entrepreneurship is quickly becoming established, and supporting organizations have emerged, but the true potential of the movement has hardly been tapped. When we combine the efficiency and innovation of business with the compassion and insight of charity, the result is a powerful new way to fight poverty, hunger, illness, and inequality.

We live at one of those rare times when a movement has emerged with the potential to transform the world. Whether as a social entrepreneur or by supporting social entrepreneurship, everyone has the opportunity to participate. One day, you may look back and say, “I was there at the beginning—and I made a difference.”

Impact Entrepreneurs field study program in India

By Jacen Greene, Ames Fellow for Social Entrepreneurship at Portland State University

Change note: this post was originally prepared as an introduction before a speaking event at Mercy Corps Northwest. Text on the event has been removed, and a video definition of social entrepreneurship has been added.

Entry filed under: Opportunities for social innovators, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , .

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