There’s been a lot of buzz around the idea of being a social entrepreneur lately, but what does it really mean?
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the generation of baby boomers and millennials is the attitude toward social issues. Millennials aren’t satisfied with simply doing work to pay the bills. Many of us are stepping out of working to satisfy basic human needs and stepping into a desire for our lives to mean something in the grand scheme of historical events.
As a whole, society is better than it was 50 years ago. In most first world countries, no matter how poor you are, increasingly fewer people are dying of disease and starvation thanks to much of the infrastructure that is currently in place. Instead of being confronted daily with survival in question, younger generations are able to contemplate issues of self-actualization higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
I’m not saying that our generation is better than our parents’, as we obviously have our own kinds of significant problems. But the kind of problems that are thought about today are very different than the ones of our forefathers. Let us never forget the work and the dedication that it took to get us to today.
With social issues taking the forefront of many young professionals in the industry today, the idea of being a social entrepreneur has appealed to many as a noble cause. But what is social entrepreneurship and is it actually possible to run a profitable corporation for social good?
To really understand what it means to be a social entrepreneur, we have to cast off our antiquated notions of what social issues are and change our paradigm of how these problems are solved. Traditionally, charities have occupied the space of solving social issues, advertising that donations as the main way of making an impact in the world.
The problem with this paradigm is that it isn’t good enough anymore. With the advent of millennials looking for greater levels of meaning and service in their work, a new generation is asking how they can use their work to have an impact on the world. One way of describing this idea is blended value.
Consider for a moment, the general view of nonprofit organizations. Traditionally, nonprofits have been measured by their ability to reduce overhead and how well they are able to pipe funding directly to their cause. It is on this basis that many of us make decisions as to a nonprofits “efficiency”. However, this is a very problematic gauge as to how effective a nonprofit is.
The first problem is that money donated is not necessarily directly equivalent to a social impact, even if the money goes straight to the cause. Americans have a history of approaching humanitarian aid with a “white man’s burden” in which we consider other cultures as somehow inferior, giving with subliminal expectation for beneficiaries to conform to American ideals.
This is problematic because western principles often do more harm than good in non-western cultures, if they even work at all. For instance, many attempts of American charities building schools in third world countries, while well intentioned, have been disruptive to societies as a whole.
However, perhaps the most central problem to this traditional paradigm of nonprofits is that it is somehow unethical for people working at nonprofits to make a lot of money. In our capitalistic and corporate society, it’s somehow okay for people who are explicitly working to accrue a fortune for themselves to make a lot of money, but somehow not okay for people who are trying to realize a larger social goal to make a lot of money.
This is where we find many millennials torn between using their specialized skills in a high-paying job or working to make the world a better place. For many, the solution is to earn money at a job that doesn’t necessarily excite them in order to have the flexibility to help out nonprofits in other ways.
To people who consider themselves social entrepreneurs, having separate occupations between earning money and working toward a social purpose is a mediocre compromise to the drive that they have for their life, and becomes the basis for becoming a social entrepreneur with the intent of blending their skills and talent with their desire to make a difference into one full-time gig.
Achieving Social Good
In essence, I would consider a social entrepreneur anyone who works to unify their full time work with some sort of social mission. Social entrepreneurs think outside of traditional boxes, seeking to apply many of the entrepreneurial principles to bring change to social issues.
However, unlike the general term of an entrepreneur that uses a company or other legal entity to realize his or her goals of making a profit, a social entrepreneur does not necessarily need a nonprofit, company, or specific vehicle for achieving their goals of establishing social change.
Because a social entrepreneur is not necessarily driven by profits, it can be challenging to quantify what success entails. While valuations and profits serve as highly quantitative metrics to measure a corporation and ultimately an entrepreneur, there is no cultural narrative around what it takes for a social entrepreneur to be successful.
In this sense, the phrase “social entrepreneurship” does not provide a complete understanding of how we can practically create social change. While quantitative metrics are still important for social missions, there must be a qualitative baseline of ethics to be upheld in order to benefit communities without forcibly interfering with aspects of culture.
A new generation is not satisfied with the state of many of our social and societal problems, and are taking up their roles as social entrepreneurs wherever they are.