According to Ashoka.org “Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.”
In many scenarios they are often considered the ‘new heroes’ of the business world and I wondered if this was indeed the right epithet to give them. As a social entrepreneur myself, I would like to think that I have something different to offer to the world whilst at the same time recognising that the contribution I make is greater than it is and than I am too. Would I call myself a hero (heroine if we’re being picky) though, I’m not so sure.
I simply recognised a need – so far so similar to a normal entrepreneur; and I set out to fulfil that need in the best way I knew – also the same as any other person starting out in business. In the fulfilment of that need a certain number of fiscal transactions need to take place otherwise the whole thing falls apart for lack of cash flow. In a business, any business, the money that comes in to fund the operation comes from the customers that purchase the products and services; this is no different to the average social enterprise.
Too often social enterprises are confused with charities or other non-profits and yet they are vastly different because they operate on business principles. They often don’t receive grant funding from external sources and their only income is from their customers.
Maybe the difference then, is in how the money that comes in is used? Again a social enterprise will have ongoing, fixed and overhead costs to account for. But they probably won’t have share-holders who need a regular dividend or return on their investment; which means that the whole of the income can be used to run the business and continue the ideals. This is clearly an area of difference between the social entrepreneur and the business man.
But is that big enough for them to be labelled heroes? I don’t think so. So perhaps the hero label can only be applied because of that phrase in the quotation I gave at the beginning of this post ‘tackling major social issues’. It would be fair to say that many social entrepreneurs operate in markets that normal business won’t touch, for a wide variety of reasons. It may be political, it may be dangerous and it’s probably poor; these are not great ingredients for a business with shareholders to work with. So perhaps that is where the hero title comes to the fore, in the fact that we, as social entrepreneurs, are prepared to look at, consider and work with the markets that others won’t, or can’t touch.