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.