What does “social entrepreneurship” really mean?

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When I tell people my favorite clients to work with are aspiring social entrepreneurs, they frequently ask if I help people open non-profits. Maybe it’s time to clarify what a social entrepreneur is.

Yes, some social ventures are not-for-profit but it’s a common misconception that you can’t drive social change AND make a profit. By definition, social entrepreneurship is “a process involving the innovative use and combination of resources to pursue opportunities to catalyze social change and/or address social needs.” Whether a business is a non-profit, for profit or NGO, determining if it qualifies as a social enterprise comes down to a basic question: does the business add value to society or drive social change.

Two well-known examples of social entrepreneurship are micro-financier Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and Aravind Eye Hospital in India, a provider of eye surgery at a fraction of the usual cost. Both are for profit businesses that improve lives.

When we think of social entrepreneurship, most of us think of the international do-good organizations tackling hunger and disease in developing countries. Sure, we’d all love to change the world, but we can make enormous differences starting in our own little community.

Because my expertise is in the area of for profit, I only work with people wanting to set up a for-profit business. Aspiring entrepreneurs come to me when they want to start a business that has more meaning, makes a difference and a profit.  Every business needs a profit and loss statement but I leave that up to the accountants. I have a different balance sheet we work through that helps aspiring entrepreneurs work out their multiple bottom line-a value in addition to financial profit that’s measured in how the business improves lives. It doesn’t have to change the universe. it can be as small as making a difference in your own neighborhood, what my friend Alice Barry calls your “YOU-niverse.”

Even as an artist or craftsperson, you can be a social entrepreneur. Let’s say, for example, you design a line of jewelry that you’ve been fabricating yourself. Your business has grown to more than you can supply yourself but rather than outsource it to China, you want to help local women earn a living . By training local women to do part of the production for you, you are enabling them to feed and care for their families by teaching them a skill they can do at home. You save on overhead by not having a manufacturing facility and you’ve provided livelihood for women who may otherwise be dependent on social welfare. Your profit from your sales and the change you make in these women’s lives is your double bottom line.

Another category of social entrepreneurship is the buy-one, give-one model made popular by Tom’s Shoes. Other business donate a portion of their profits to a particular cause. My favorite is a business that actually teaches people how to help themselves so that they are no longer dependent on hand-outs. That method of making change is more sustainable than charity because it enables people to always be permanently independent. The giving continues even if the funds for the program are no longer available.

One way to decide what changes you want to make is to think about what really irks you. What do you think of as a terrible injustice or lack? Most likely if it’s an issue that really bothers you, it’s something you are passionate enough about driving change that you will be effective in creating lasting change. That’s the ultimate in social entrepreneurship.

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