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.