What is Social Entrepreneurship?

One of the hottest career options for students graduating college is a field that didn’t even exist a generation ago. Yes, new technology, big data, and social media might all fall under that criteria. But one field in particular is leveraging all three of those disciplines to fill a gap in the marketplace. “Social entrepreneurship” applies the results-driven principles of business toward solving social challenges at the community, national, or international level. The opportunity to use traditional business skills or international experiences has attracted many young career professionals who seek more out of a job than just a paycheck. Let’s examine what this popular new field has to offer, and what it requires to be successful.

History of Social Entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurship didn’t evolve overnight. Its origins can be traced to the early 1980s, starting with a business trend called cause-related marketing. Businesses realized their customers cared about specific issues, so they began supporting social issues to help increase customer loyalty and attract new customers. In 1983, American Express pledged donations to the Statue of Liberty restoration fund for every new account opened and every purchase made with its card. The results were impressive, for the company and the cause. New card applications increased by 45 percent, card usage increased 28 percent in the first month, and the company raised $1.75 million in four months.

Many companies quickly followed suit, supporting environmental, health, education, and other causes. Savvy companies have now learned to market with a social cause closely aligned with its business offerings. For example, Barnes & Noble participates in an initiative supporting tech literacy. Virtually any consumer has walked through a grocery store or mall and seen countless products branded with a pink ribbon supporting breast cancer awareness and research.

The efforts have given some consumers cause fatigue. Some believe companies are co-opting issues just to make a buck. The lack of authenticity has started to create a backlash. The pink ribbon campaign alone has generated controversy because some companies make misleading claims about how much financial support they provide, or seem to be more focused on the “marketing” than the “cause.”

The over-saturation of these campaigns has opened the door for young professionals truly interested in social responsibility. Like the early cause-related marketing professionals, social entrepreneurs develop innovative business models to address specific social challenges. The difference? Young entrepreneurs start with the social venture or cause in mind, and use business strategies and innovation to drive toward the goal. With the business and social missions running in tandem, the social component becomes part of the organization’s success metrics.

How to Become a Social Entrepreneur

Necessity is the mother of invention. Many of the world’s most successful business ideas, products or services came from a need to solve a problem. The same thought can be applied to social entrepreneurship that often sprouts from a desire to help people or communities in need. One social entrepreneur recognized many workers in Mexico struggled to find jobs because they had poor eyesight but couldn’t afford corrective lenses. He founded VisionSpring to bring basic reading glasses to Mexico and six other underdeveloped countries. More than 1 billion people in the world don’t have access to reliable electricity. So two friends teamed up to start d.light, a company that creates solar-powered lighting for poverty-stricken areas.

But filling a need isn’t enough. Social responsibility is most effective when the issue directly connects with a personal passion. Scott Harrison leads charity: water, a nonprofit that brings clean drinking water to millions around the world. A former New York City nightclub promoter, Harrison had an epiphany while vacationing on a beach that he’d done nothing in his life to help others. While traveling in Liberia taking photos, he realized many of his subjects were sick and dying because they had no clean water. The issue became personal to him, and that passion drove him to social entrepreneurship. 

Sound business practices are also part of the mix. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce offers the following 7 Steps to Becoming a Social Entrepreneur. These basic business skills help to focus and harness passion into a venture that can impact social change:

  • Write a mission statement
  • Research the field
  • Conceptualize your unique offering
  • Reach out to others for feedback and support
  • Develop your business model
  • Identify initial funding sources
  • Write an action plan

Notable Social Entrepreneurship Organizations

The social entrepreneurship business model is here to stay for two important reasons. First, it has helped talented, innovative business professionals connect with their life's purpose. There is genuine satisfaction and fulfillment that comes with helping others. Those who’ve experienced it through driving social impact will attest it offers a sharp contrast to driving business objectives through marketing tools and gimmicks. Secondly, social entrepreneurship works. A new generation of startups has proven they can change the world in many ways big and small.

Among the most impressive companies are those that focus on the Three P’s: People, Planet, Profit. Sanergy in Kenya helps make affordable, hygienic sanitation. By franchising sanitation facilities to local community members, the company positions locals to improve their own conditions. The company collects the waste and converts it into useful end-products. The model has helped local people, local businesses and the environment.

TOMS has become a profitable business while helping people around the world through a simple yet revolutionary “One for One” model. For every product the company sells, it also donates a product for people in need — more than 75 million pairs of shoes to children around the world. It also donates water, eyeglasses and health services.

Ideas for social innovation can also come from everyday products. Lush is a cosmetics company with no obvious direct connection to a social cause. But it supports local workers, promotes ethical buying practices, opposes product testing on animals, and its products are free of packaging to reduce waste.

Notable Social Entrepreneurs

What these companies and others have in common is a visionary leader with a story to tell.Shelley Saxena worked in IT, marketing and research, and development. His mother in India almost died after being misdiagnosed and mistreated following a bout with Hepatitis C. The experience opened his eyes to the health care gap in developing countries. Saxena created a subscription-based health care model that now conducts 20,000 patient consultations per month in India and South Africa.

Jenny Anderson became a social entrepreneur after watching her older brother, who is on the autism spectrum, struggle to find work. His challenges are not unique, as many living with developmental disabilities are unemployed. Anderson launched Celebrate EDU, partnering with schools and organizations in seven states to help young adults with developmental disabilities.

Alloysius Attah grew up on a small farm in Ghana. He saw firsthand the challenges farmers faced to support their families and harvest crops each year. Having made it to college, he felt committed to give back to the people who helped support him. Attah launched Farmerline, a software company that sends text and voicemail messages to farmers about weather forecasts, market prices and new farming techniques. His network has reached more than 200,000 farmers across five countries and continues to grow.

The stories are endless. Every year, new cohorts of social entrepreneurs emerge to tackle social issues around the world.

First Steps to a Career in Social Entrepreneurship

If you’re considering a career in social entrepreneurship, learn about the Social Enterprise Master’s offered by IR Online, American University’s International Relations online program.

The program is designed for business professionals from a variety of fields who have a passion for solving social challenges. The program prepares future social entrepreneurs by teaching how to build business models that advance a social mission. Foundational courses like Leading Social Innovation and Project Design, Monitoring and Evaluation offer future entrepreneurs a primer for launching their businesses. Concentration courses like Marketing Management, Management of Organizations and Human Capital, and Intercultural Communication provide a level of sophistication required for entrepreneurs to scale their ideas for maximum impact.

Joining the ranks of those who change the world for the better takes more than just passion and business knowledge; it takes the right combination of social enterprise skills to transform a vision into reality.

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