Social Enterprise

The Problem with “Social Entrepreneurship”: A Student’s Perspective

Much good can be done under the guise of “social entrepreneurship,” but that doesn’t excuse our collective failure to acknowledge its limitations.

As a university student interested in a career in social change, I’ve been heavily exposed to social entrepreneurship. My university promotes the study and practice of social entrepreneurship. Countless extracurricular programs, fellowships, courses, conferences, and other initiatives focus on the topic, and many of my peers have eagerly pursued these opportunities. But what does “social entrepreneurship” even mean? My university and its students have embraced social entrepreneurship wholeheartedly, but are they correct in doing so?

A valuable first step to understanding “social entrepreneurship” is to look to its practitioners’ self-definition. The Skoll Foundation defines “social entrepreneurs” as “society’s change agents: creators of innovations that disrupt the status quo and transform our world for the better.” This definition is so over-inclusive that it is meaningless. Steve Jobs “created innovations that disrupted the status quo and transformed our world for the better,” but the Skoll Foundation’s list of grantees suggests that the founder of an electronics company would not be considered a social entrepreneur. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. “disrupted the status quo and transformed our world for the better,” but the Skoll Foundation’s list of grantees also suggests that an advocate, organizer, writer, and orator such as Dr. King would not be considered a social entrepreneur. We must look elsewhere for a satisfactory definition.

Academia also fails to provide a satisfactory definition of social entrepreneurship. In the widely cited 2007 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition,” Roger L. Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s business school, and Sally Osberg, CEO of the Skoll Foundation, attempt to define social entrepreneurship for an academic audience. They base their definition on economist Joseph Schumpeter’s definition of entrepreneurship, arguing that a social entrepreneur identifies an unjust social equilibrium, identifies a means of changing it, and implements the change, forming a new social equilibrium. Although this definition is more specific than the Skoll Foundation’s, it still bears little meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr, a “conventional” social change advocate, would fit under this definition, just as he would fit under the Skoll Foundation’s. Definitions of “social entrepreneurship” fail to indicate how “social entrepreneurship” differs from past social change advocacy.

Given that the term “social entrepreneurship” denotes almost no meaning, why would anyone use it? If “social entrepreneurship” does not differ from other forms of social change advocacy, why do we care about it? I posit that the answer lies with its connotations, specifically those of the “entrepreneurship” component. The popular understanding of “entrepreneur” is “someone who has interesting ideas and makes a great deal of money from them.” Our society prizes the traditional form of entrepreneurship and respects its practitioners in a way that our society doesn’t necessarily support advocates of social change. In using the term “social entrepreneurship,” those who use it attempt to deemphasize the “social” component in favor of the more accepted “entrepreneurship” component, signaling that they share mainstream values. While this respect may be important to participants, the benefits also extend beyond intangible “respect.”

People who are capable of providing tangible benefits are also the targets of the “social entrepreneurship” signaling phenomenon. When a university student interested in social change adopts the title of “social entrepreneur,” he or she signals to parents, employers, admissions committees, and other responsible adults that, although they may be interested in social change, they are solidly part of the mainstream. A social entrepreneur is not one of those scary people who does things like camping out in parks. Calling yourself a “social entrepreneur” signals that you share the values and norms of people who supposedly matter, helping you receive the tangible benefits—grants, fellowships, job opportunities—that they offer. “Social entrepreneurship” allows for social change advocacy without the potential external consequences of “conventional” activism.

There’s nothing wrong with projecting an image for the sake of external validation; it’s part of success in any field, and it’s important to develop such a skill. But we should be honest about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. There’s a lot of good that can be done under the guise of “social entrepreneurship,” but that doesn’t excuse our collective failure to recognize and acknowledge its purposes and limitations.

Honesty about the purposes and limitations of “social entrepreneurship” would begin with rejection of the term itself. It is the epitome of a buzzword; it is a term that means something slightly different to everyone and ultimately nothing to anyone, facilitating obfuscation and equivocation. This is especially true in the context of the university, where individuals are members of an intellectual community that prizes clear thinking, writing, and expression. “Social entrepreneurship” is incompatible with these values. It is high time for us to retire the term from our lexicon.

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  • BY steve wright

    ON April 13, 2012 12:46 PM

    Ian, I have two specific comments. The first is that Steve Jobs and Apple did not provide the value that you attribute to them. As a corporation they generate significant negative externalities that they will hopefully address now that they have been exposed.  Additionally, they hoard money in a cash starved economy and their products are not so much valuable as they are addictive.

    A more general comment would be, with respect, “so what”. Our economy is broken. Social enterprise is an effort broadly to find ways the leverage the market to do good.  Split hairs or do good. There’s work to do.

  • BY Xavier Alpasa

    ON April 13, 2012 02:08 PM

    I affirm the terminological confusion (almost an inexactitude) about social entrepreneurship.  My great unease for this has brought me to international conference debates where the anti-definition protagonists insist on the danger of exclusion with the sharpening of definitions.  They highlight the importance and the greater benefit of more people helping more people with the more inclusive scope than potentially discourage the majority (and the aspirants) with the more focused definition because it might elevate only the few elite, bonafide pratitioners.

    Unfortunately, the broad definition becomes antithetical because it discombobulates grants that land on projects with throttled impact or awards to so-called “social entrepreneurs” who are authentically effecting galactic changes but business element is introuvable or an accidental tool that sustainability is jeopardized.

    Thus, I humbly submit the following BASIC statements (which can and should be expounded):

    -  a precise, even SHARP definition is needed and essentially important if we want to hit the target

    (Other contributory efforts beyond the definition become icing on the cake and if they prove to be propitious manifesting consistent characteristics close to the definitional range, then the initial definition can - and might really - evolve).

    -  a basic, working definition I forward is “BUSINESS FOR DEVELOPMENT”

    (This then means, the two non-negotiable elements are Business and Development.  It is also pellucid that Business becomes only a tool and Development is the empyreal goal.)

    -  triple bottomline of People, Planet and Profit is the bottomline

    (Without measure of number of people benefitting and how much they are benefitted we miss the point of development.  Without the concern for the planet, we are not able to address the clamorous concern of our only one home.  Without business acument for profit, why use the term entrepreneurship in the first place?)

    This piece can be open to question but I would rather gather even the disconcerting voices so we can at least start the definition evolution for a more colossal social entrepreneurship revolution.

  • BY Robert W Price

    ON April 16, 2012 11:53 AM

    As the Executive Director and co-founder of the Global Entrepreneurship Institute, a non-profit that was founded in 1996, I hope I can address your interesting post. Let me first say that few words are as abused in the lexicon of the business world, as ill-defined in the management literature, and as open to multiple meanings as entrepreneurship. The concept of entrepreneurship has been in our modern society for thousands of years and in the history of economic study the word has been overused, and in some cases underused. Social and nonprofit entrepreneurs who pursue endeavors for the benefit of society have existed since ancient times. In fact, the word philanthropy is derived from a Greek word that means “lover of mankind.” Today it is believed that entrepreneurism and innovation can also help “spark positive social change.” A “social entrepreneur” is doing the entrepreneurship-thing but only in a non-stock, non-profit entrepreneurial activity. Legally, there can’t be any financial upside like a “harvest” “exit” or “IPO event” that financially enriches anyone, because there is no stock that increases in value. I hope this helps.

  • BY Charlene Browne

    ON April 19, 2012 04:22 PM

    It seems you are being purposely obtuse in your dissection of the term “social entrepreneurship” in the same way some people over analyze the term “hispanic” while knowing exactly what is meant when it is used. Please feel free to retire the term from your lexicon and good luck finding people to talk to at cocktail parties.

  • BY Jeff Mowatt

    ON April 19, 2012 10:42 PM

    Ian, I tend not to use the term ‘social entrepreunship’ mainyl because of the association with stipend funded foundation driven efforts, It is also far easier to say ‘social enterprise’ or ‘social business’ to represent the self-sustaining form. In fact, because of the numerous efforts to hijack both terms and re-interpret as social media business, I’m inclined to go back to the term we concieved - People-Centered Economic Development.

    In our 2006 strategy paper on microeconomic development and spcoal enterprise we offer an operational definition for the purpose of the project:

    In 2008 just after Bill Gates coined the term Creative Capitalism, our founder asked ‘What is social enterprise?’

  • BY Thien Nguyen-Trung

    ON April 21, 2012 05:20 AM

    Ian, thanks for bringing back (yet again) the debate on the definition of the term “social entrepreneurship”.

    There seems no dearth of article after article trying to fit the ambiguity and misleading nature of this term, yet I find confusion remaining so many years after it became popularized in the mainstream.

    My interpretation of this term goes like this:

    1) Social entrepreneurship can either mean “social advocacy” in this “equilibrium shifting” way that you described. Take Ashoka and David Bornstein’s book “How to Change the World” and the way they described a way of THINKING and ACTING that they tried to tie to some of the virtues associated especially in Western worldviews with what is sometimes expressed through business entrepreneurship (risk taking, success despite the odds, from rags to riches, blabla)

    2) Social entrepreneurship has also been used for “founding a social/charity-based organization that generates some financial earned income (not necessarily profits) and may not entirely rely on grants”

    3) Social entrepreneurship has yet also been applied (albeit too broadly, arguably) as “founding a for-profit company run with the operational discipline of a traditional commercial business but with an explicit social/environmental mission featured prominently”


    So no matter what article I read, I won’t take any seriously that tries to give only ONE definition since the world has simply taken the term and made it public domain for anyone to play with and wear (like GAP jeans) as the occasion calls for. Thus, while you expound on the rigour that academia may demand, allow me to remark perhaps that we are long past rigorous definitions - not because they cannot be made only, but also because nobody is any longer particularly interested in listening. The period of “control” that we had over the term - if we ever had it - is gone, and now we will likely struggle in books and conferences for the rest of our lives to endlessly define it for our specific purposes.

    As you said, Ian, if there were agreement that the main purpose of using the term is for describing a type of company or method of engaging in social changemaking, the term “social entrepreneurship” is arguably quite useless indeed. But there is no such agreement. No matter how much pundits bemoan the inaccuracies and “outdatedness” of the term over and over again, I am confident that the simplicity, vagueness, and cultural appeal of this combination of words will stay with both “informed” and “ignorant” people in all its useless glory for decades ahead from intellectual journals like Stanford Social Innovation Review to mainstream newspapers, trashy tabloids, personal blogs and television news.

    The silver lining? Perhaps, at least, we have always known what we mean when we call SOMEONE (instead of the organization) a “social entrepreneur”. We intrinsically know the virtues of her personality, the enormity or importance of the task she seeks to address, and we share an admiration for her steadfastness in a tough battle ahead. If we could agree that this person does not have to be a business person or starting a company, but can stand behind movements (like MLK) and other means of expressing her crusade as well, perhaps then we can make a larger set of people, including you, Ian, a little happier?

    For anyone slightly below MLK abilities, such as possibly some of your college peers who love to affiliate around (despite lacking definition of) this subject, you may have to suffer their abuse quietly as they are quick to call themselves social entrepreneurs before you can even put the rules down on whether the naming rights go according to mere INTENTION or actual ACCOMPLISHMENTS.

    Oh, and that is why I don’t go to cocktail parties and networking events for social entrepreneurship-loving people, by the way…


  • BY Shawn Westcott

    ON May 2, 2012 12:59 AM

    I would agree that the term “social entrepreneurship” has been overused, misused and confused, much in the same way as sustainability, CSR, and the ever innocuous “greening” (and all of its variations).

    Our organization, the Social Entrepreneurship Forum, of which I am Chairman, chooses to focus on promoting and supporting social entrepreneurs as for-profit entrepreneurs addressing societal problems who realize a second impact other than just financial profit. These entrepreneurs identify societal problems, innovative and create for-profit businesses around solutions to these societal problems. While traditional entrepreneurs only measure the results in terms of economic profit,  social entrepreneurs measure financial return AND return in relation to the effects on society as a whole.

    Mr Price from Global Entrepreneurship Institute, who commented earlier, said that social entrepreneurs do the “entrepreneurship-thing” but only in a “non-stock, non-profit entrepreneurial activity”. This is simply not true. To the contrary, there is a large flow of traditional capital to these entrepreneurs seeking double impact and realizing blended value. One needs only to look at banks like Deutsche bank, which has recently raised a $100m fund for social business, or Social Capital Marktets (SOCAP) which convenes traditional capital and social entrepreneurs to realize financial and societal returns.

  • firstly, i will say that i could not agree more that ‘social entrepreneurship’ is almost a meaningless term now, and that there is a lot of bullshit that passes under that banner. there are a lot of people trying to legitimize their work by passing it off as social enterprise.

    that said, i don’t believe we should not discount or demean honest efforts that also use this language. there are plenty of great social enterprises and social entrepreneurs.

    and yes, it’s important to keep pushing back against the idea that the ‘business’ way of doing things is necessarily better and that it’s okay for ‘social enterprises’ and ‘social businesses’ and ‘social ventures’ and ‘impact ventures’ to be more focused on profits as long as they have nice little fluffy social mission.

    that said…

    i don’t think you make a good argument, to be honest. you could apply similar critiques to almost any term that has quickly gained mainstream acceptance. what is ‘entrepreneurship’? what is ‘activism’? what is ‘social justice’? what is ‘democracy’? what is ‘development’? All of these things can mean multiple things.

    And nowadays, especially with a 24/7 news cycle, proliferation of a media that is hungry for content, almost everything becomes a buzzword. and every buzzword is exploited. be it ‘innovation’ or ‘disruption’ or ‘outcome’ or whatever.

    I can start breaking down your logic but this is, i think, a pointless debate. because these debates have been going on for a long time without necessarily leading to progress (and I’m guessing you’re aware of the history).

    we can get into talking about how the term social entrepreneur marginalizes entrepreneurs who are doing good, how it creates a niche whereas the ultimate goal is supposedly to create a world where ALL entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs. we can talk about how there is too much talk and not enough action under what passes for socent, or how everyone will praise it but not enough will actually measure or fund it. we can ALSO talk about how a lack of definitional clarity is a huge stumbling block and how it discredits an entire movement.

    how does that actively contribute to supporting great people and great work?

    does it matter whether honeycare or the nation are considered or call themselves social enterprises or not? what matters more is the work they are doing (or not doing). and overwhelmingly, i suspect, nothing will be quite what it seems or claims to be, and everything will have both positive and negative consequences.

    the prefix ‘social’ then matters only insofar as it indicates claimed intention - and after that, i think being specific trumps generalizing.

    sorry, i’m not actually that pissed off. i believe in informed critique that moves things forward (which i don’t think this was) and really don’t like constant do-gooder infighting and self-doubting.

    support good work. bash the pretenders. labels are just labels.


  • Sabatina Andreucetti's avatar

    BY Sabatina Andreucetti

    ON September 26, 2014 01:43 AM

    Interesting that all as far as I can see are male voices. In my humble opinion the label is secondarary to the aims and aspirations of people realising and willing to use their intellect, skills, knowledge, networking, resources for the advances of triple bottom line: people, planet, profit (surplus) all of which benefit change, innovation and responses to issues that concern all concerned citizens.

  • Christian Sarkar's avatar

    BY Christian Sarkar

    ON May 17, 2015 11:00 PM

    Ian - have you read the work of Paul Polak?

  • Patti Ann Ridgway's avatar

    BY Patti Ann Ridgway

    ON August 27, 2015 02:02 PM

    I agree with Sabatina…...When I speak of myself as a “social entrepreneur”, I share how I’ve taken on a global problem (hunger and the qulaity of food going through the system), and how I’ve created an innovative solution (using the proven system of network marketing as the vehicle).  I tap into the passion of others (like minded entrepreneurs) and by forming a network of givers we create a double bottom line (impacting hunger and creating passive residual revenue).  I am an entrepreneur addressing a social issue.

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