Arts & Culture

Social or Cultural Entrepreneurship: An Argument for a New Distinction

A look at the difference between cultural and social entrepreneurship.

Cultural entrepreneurship is different than social entrepreneurship because it is primarily focused on reimagining social roles and motivating new behaviors.

This past September, as Georgia inmate Troy Davis’ life hung in the balance, a coalition of anti-death penalty and criminal justice advocates across the United States joined forces to create the “I Am Troy Davis” meme, in which people sympathetic to what many saw as his abuse at the hands of the justice system tweeted and posted in solidarity on their Facebook and Google+ profiles. Although Troy Davis ultimately was executed, advocates argue that the effort sparked an expanded awareness of and renewed conversation about the death penalty.

Further north in Canada, a couple of fed-up young feminists in Toronto decided to take to the streets this spring after a police officer insinuated that a recent rape victim was “asking for it” because she wasn’t dressed appropriately. They dubbed their effort “Slutwalk,” in an attempt to reclaim the word “slut” and to make the no-holds barred argument that no woman—no matter what she’s wearing—deserves to be sexually assaulted. The idea caught fire, and to date over 70 SlutWalks have taken place around the world, including most major U.S. cities, Berlin, Cape Town, New Delhi, and Mexico City. Debate over the word “slut” and the future of the feminist movement has exploded from the blogosphere to The New York Times.

And perhaps the most hyped gathering of all, the Oct. 30, 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear on the Washington Mall, hosted by beloved Comedy Central duo Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, was attended by over 200,000 people. Though Stewart and Colbert’s approach was characteristically humorous, their message was dead serious: the tenor of our politics no longer reflects who we are as citizens.

All of these efforts—as disparate as they may seem—are pioneering what we believe is a new approach to social change: cultural entrepreneurship. Cultural entrepreneurs, who often rely heavily on new media tools such as Twitter and Kickstarter, use persuasive communications and peer influence to shift attitudes, beliefs, and behavior and, in doing so, change the world for the better.

Think of cultural entrepreneurship as social entrepreneurship’s little sister. Social entrepreneurship has gotten considerable attention in the last decade in terms of resources, investment, and analysis—and deservedly so. Some of the most exciting new innovations in social change are happening under the ever widening big tent movement of social entrepreneurship, fueled by organizations like Ashoka, Acumen Fund, and Echoing Green. David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World, has founded the blog Dowser that focuses on “solution journalism,” giving voice to innovators who pursue the much-coveted triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.

As social entrepreneurship has come of age as a field, it’s become more and more apparent to us that a new distinction must be made between innovations that focus on changing markets and systems and those that change hearts and minds. Building on the work of entities like the Santa Fe, N.M.-based Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship, we argue that cultural entrepreneurship is different than social entrepreneurship, because it is focused primarily on reimagining social roles and motivating new behaviors—often working with and in popular culture to reach the widest possible audience. Social entrepreneurs solve problems by disrupting existing systems, as microfinance has, or through breakthrough product design, like the solar powered lights from d.light design or Barefoot Power. Cultural entrepreneurs, on the other hand, solve problems by disrupting belief systems—using television shows like Glee to initiate viewers into the disability or GLBTQ rights frameworks or the Twitter campaign #mensaythingstome, designed to expose anonymous misogyny online.

To be truly useful, these two types of entrepreneurship need not be thought of as mutually exclusive. Some social entrepreneurs can be cultural entrepreneurs and vice-a-versa., for example, has created a college loan lending system through online giving for students in the developing world. The nonprofit is proving that there is a market for other institutional lenders, and is increasing hope and supercharging educational expectations among people in these communities. The former is more of a market innovation; the latter is an affirmation of people’s potential.

Another recent example is the Girls Not Brides: Global Partnership to End Child Marriage. Much discussed at this year’s Clinton Global Initiative, the campaign is being championed by The Elders—an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela. Turns out that 10 million girls—that’s 25,000 a day—are married before they turn 18. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of The Elders, said that he is as committed to ending child marriage as he once was to ending Apartheid.

Advocates of Girls Not Brides know that child marriage can’t only be legislated away or solved through a product innovation. Laws can’t always be enforced in distant villages and, more importantly, they don’t change people’s hearts and minds. Lasting generational change is more likely to happen through authentic and locally led community engagement. Cultural entrepreneur Molly Melching, founder of Tostan and a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship Fellow, does this in West Africa, where she works within existing cultural practices to help villages educate themselves on the dangers of child marriage and the benefits of delaying marriage—often using traditional dance. Molly and other people working on child marriage are confident that the tradition can end in one generation.

Of course, shifting cultural norms has always been an intrinsic part of social movements. If one looks at the ways in which the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s functioned, it’s undeniable that culture, as much as politics, were at the center of those world-changing efforts. But as the globalization of media—old and new—has taken hold and our cultural consumption patterns have shifted so dramatically, so has the relationship between social change and culture.

The speed alone at which an issue can gain attention is baffling now that social media plays such a large part in our lives. Consider this example from August 2011: after an outraged young woman spotted a t-shirt aimed at tweens in her local J.C. Penny that read, “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me,” she started an online petition on and the social media ball started rolling. Within just hours of the Twitter frenzy, J.C. Penny announced that it was pulling the shirts from every US store. Corporate accountability and consumer advocacy is taking a completely new shape, thanks to cultural entrepreneurs across the Internet.

Social innovators have recognized that without definitive cultural shifts, their market-based interventions can fail. Another example from an innovator that we both advise: Katie Orenstein, founder of The Op-Ed Project and an Echoing Green Fellow, who has been working to diversify public debate by urging more diverse voices to contribute opinion editorials to the nation’s newspapers. Orenstein recognized that she couldn’t just teach women and others habitually left out of the Wall Street Journal to write op-eds; she also needed to convince them that their knowledge and experience were significantly valuable. The surface challenge was ostensibly a supply and demand problem—how do you get more women and minorities to submit op-eds and speak out? But the larger context was a cultural conundrum. After painstaking trial and error, coaching thousands of women and minorities, Orenstein and her staff have created a curriculum that doesn’t just get people writing—it gets them thinking differently about themselves, their value, and their responsibility to the world.

Identifying and understanding the distinction between cultural entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship is important for a number of reasons. First, cultural change usually runs deeper and can be longer lasting; more foundations and donors should invest in this theory of change, not to the exclusion of more market- or product-based approaches but in conjunction with them. Second, bona fide paradigm shifts in culture often take time; shifting behavior doesn’t happen overnight, but occurs through the accumulation of exposure to new ideas from many sources. This requires funders and supporters to be open to new definitions of measuring impact and to new expectations about mid- and long-term results—the cultural version of Acumen Fund’s idea of “patient capital.” Third, more people should look to make social change through community-driven or crowd-sourced engagement.

We encourage a larger conversation on this new distinction: Does it resonate for you? In what ways have you seen social and cultural entrepreneurs working together? How can we work together better? Please leave your comments below.

We also are launching a new campaign to help indentify the most notable cultural entrepreneurs in your communities who are setting the standards for best practices and revolutionary change. Tweet them at us (@courtwrites @lisamwitter), with links and please include #CulEnt so everyone can benefit from the growing databank of cultural innovators.

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  • Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui's avatar

    BY Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui

    ON December 9, 2011 03:25 PM

    I have been trying to find the perfect “home” for my new company, The Leader Project, and now I know where to land… in the field of Cultural Entrepreneurship!  Thank you for this enlightening and timely article.  My work uses an integrated cultural framework to guide our social innovation projects.  It blends both Western and Hawaiian cultural world views.  Perhaps we have the potential to invite a much bigger community into this story if we look beyond just popular culture and the role of social media as we define culture-based solutions.

  • BY Jessi Arrington

    ON December 9, 2011 04:12 PM

    This is a really interesting idea, and it certainly got me thinking.

    Here’s a point for conversation: I believe the “Cultural” part of Courtney and Lisa’s argument is right on; what I’m a bit unsure of is the “Entrepreneur” part. Are we entrepreneurs if we’re not involved in any specific business or organization? Is bringing awareness to an issue and doing our best to promote change an entrepreneurial activity? Perhaps these types of leaders are Cultural Organizers? Or maybe Cultural Activists? I’ve been titled a Social Activist before, and I have to say that based on this argument of Social vs. Cultural, Cultural Activism would be more appropriate term for the way I go about taking on the causes and issues I care about. Cultural Activist seems like a designation I’d be willing to strive for! Let’s share our thoughts on the “Entrepreneurship” side of this title.

  • Thomas Aageson's avatar

    BY Thomas Aageson, Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship

    ON December 12, 2011 10:34 AM

    On our site, the Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship, <> you find many of the references I make below to cultural entrepreneurship. 

    We do have to distinguish between the use of the word “culture” as reference to the culture of a workplace, or drug culture from the true sense of the word that belongs with the cultures of the world like art art, music, literature, film, museums, artisans, performance, folk art, etc. 

    Cultural entrepreneurs are those who deploy cultural wealth from their community, blend it with human and financial capital, and convert it into an enterprise, for profit or not for profit.  Dan Stroper gathered together the music of local cultures and created Putumayo creating a new genre, world music.  Stephanie Odegard uses museum designs and Nepalese rug makers (hand knotted), pays them a just wage, and creates stunning rugs. 

    I have created a sales gallery at Mystic Seaport for contemporary martime artists, a catering business based on 19th century recipes and traditions, co-founded the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market <>, started a museum book and print enterprise, and New Mexico Creates <> that has generated millions of dollars back to local artists.  We are now developing New Mexico’s Cultural Corridor with a regional brand to promote tourism.

    Poverty can be addressed when developing and scaling cultural enterprises.  See our Kellogg Foundation research.  We proved that cultural entrepreneur households in 3 of our poorest states are better off than other households (see our site).  Clusters of cultural enterprises create the local, regional or national Cultural Economy.  UNESCO has identified it as one of the fastest growing economic areas of international trade. The definition of cultural entrepreneur found on our site was develop in collaboration with UNESCO.

    Supporting cultural entrepreneurs to build their cultural enterprises blends together cultural, economic, social and environmental positive impact.  It is an expanded view of J Emerson’s blended value approach that I admire. 

    There is more to say and if you wish, contact me at <> 
    PS Lisa…Britt Bravo of Have Fun Do Good is my daughter.

  • BY Shawn Landres

    ON December 16, 2011 01:51 PM

    Thank you both for this vital contribution to the entrepreneurship-for-good conversation.

    In collaboration with The Natan Fund, The Samuel Bronfman Foundation, Pears Foundation, and the ROI Community, Jumpstart has documented the emergence of an entire ecosystem of what you might term Jewish cultural entrepreneurs.  Our latest report about North America, entitled The Jewish Innovation Economy, is at , and our report about Europe is at .

    We look forward to joining and continuing this important discussion.

  • BY Nedra Weinreich

    ON December 27, 2011 10:22 AM

    Interesting article, but you seem to have made up a new word - “cultural entrepreneurship” for something that already exists: social marketing. Social marketers, like cultural entrepreneurs [from the article] “use persuasive communications and peer influence to shift attitudes, beliefs, and behavior and, in doing so, change the world for the better.” But we don’t limit ourselves to the communications sphere, bringing in the market forces when they will be more effective.

    I suppose what you call it depends on which world you come from, but I’d hate for people to think this is a brand new concept!

  • BY Bill Snyder

    ON December 29, 2011 05:47 PM

    Excellent distinction.  Some needs, injustices, and inequities will only be met by changing the cultures that foster them.

    I think Jessi’s point above, though, is key. From the Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship: “Cultural entrepreneurs are resourceful visionaries, generating revenues from culturally embedded knowledge systems and activities.”

    Leading with the examples of “I Am Troy Davis” and “Slutwalk” confuse the point, as neither have a revenue-generating component. (Thomas’ examples help to clarify.)

    As important as it is to define the difference between social and cultural entrepreneurship, it’s equally important to distinguish entrepreneurship from activism. Both are valid, and they are not mutually exclusive. But to truly understand and nurture cultural entrepreneurship as a discipline, it’s important to understand both its entrepreneurial and cultural aspects.

  • Thanks for these ideas!

    To me, the idea of cultural entrepreneurs is the same as social innovators.

    One idea which it did trigger for me is that certain social entrepreneurs may be particularly focused on asserting and strengthening minority cultures. They are still social entrepreneurs (thus I don’t think a new term is needed) but I think highlighting the effort people are putting into the resurgence of local and minority cultures is interesting ans useful

  • BY Daniel Bassill

    ON March 13, 2012 01:30 PM

    When I worked in the advertising department of a large national retailer in the 1970s and 1980s we spent over $250 million a year to educate consumers and motivate them to shop at our stores when they were looking for products and services we offered.

    Today I aggregate information about organizations and networks working to influence the aspirations and learning habits of inner city kids so more come to school prepared to learn and leave school prepared for 21s century jobs.  Since a city as large as Chicago might require several hundreds tutor/mentor programs (it has over 500 public schools) we need to influence the beliefs and habits of thousands of volunteers, donors, policy makers…and students… for this entire system to thrive.

    We don’t have thousands of dollars, let alone millions, so we share ideas with web sites, social media, email and through place-based events. 

    I’ve been doing this for nearly 20 years so I don’t know if it’s social marketing, cultural entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, or just network building.  However, at the heart of this process is a need to influence how people think and act so that more people become proactive in what they do every day to support this process from year to year.

    If a new lable will inspire investors and/or philanthropists or business leaders and volunteers to seek out those doing this type of work to provide more time and talent to help us, I’m all for it.

  • Terry A. Purvis-Smith's avatar

    BY Terry A. Purvis-Smith

    ON March 13, 2012 03:03 PM

    I value and congratulate the intentions of the social innovation and cultural entrepreneur movements in their concern for responding to human pain around the world.  I’d like my comments to be seen in the context of appreciation and support for the creativity and life-giving orientation of these movements.

    Still, I wonder about the concept of cultural entrepreneur.  It rings of the goodwill and enthusiasm of the early twentieth century when young men and women in the U.S. saw the need to evangelize the world.  Some were taking the “gospel” only; others were attempting to address the same social problems as the contemporary social innovation movement.

    Here’s one of the lessons learned from both wings of that movement.  We took our culture along with our good intentions and that was seen and experienced as a kind of cultural imperialism.  In some contexts, it devastated indigenous cultures with reverberations lasting to our day.  As that evangelistic movement carried a message of “superiority” how do cultural entrepreneurs avoid destroying cultures in an attempt to save societies and value the strengths of those who, though poorer, may have much to teach us but not the resources to either teach us or fend off our superiority.

    These are phrases from the discussion that cause me concern:

    “. . .shift attitudes, beliefs, and behavior and, in doing so, change the world for the better
    change hearts and minds. ‘

    “Cultural entrepreneurs, on the other hand, solve problems by disrupting belief systems.”

    “Social innovators have recognized that without definitive cultural shifts, their market-based interventions can fail.”

    This leads me to this question: If culture is something we swim in as a fish swims in water, can we ever be so confident that we understand ourselves and our culture sufficiently to disrupt another culture’s belief system?


  • BY Jennifer Irizarry

    ON April 24, 2012 08:01 PM

    This is in response to Terry’s comment above re: cultural imperialism. The authors’s description of the prevalence of child marriage and its inextricable links to notions of social acceptance (culture) can in fact be shifted through innovations in the social space that expose people to an alternative norm which eventually takes root and allows customs such as child marriage to become unfashionable and go extinct.

    Child marriage, or any cultural practice that is so inherently at odds with the spirit of universal human rights-which have been codified and endorsed by nearly every nation on earth in the form of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone of international law- is crying out for social entrepreneurs to address and change.

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