What is a social entrepreneur?

Florence NightingaleFlorence Nightingale - Social Entrepreneur

Social entrepreneurs are individuals who recognize a social problem and employ entrepreneurial principles to build innovations, systems, and organizations to overcome that problem. Social entrepreneurs focus primarily on creating positive social change in societies, whereas the traditional business entrepreneur focuses more on creating profits and positive financial returns. Although some social entrepreneurs operate in the for-profit world, many operate in the non-profit world of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or in government.

One historical example of a social entrepreneur is Florence Nightingale, who was not only an important pioneer in sanitary medical care but a founder of modern nursing practices: she founded the first nursing school in 1860 and went on to promote the development of nursing as a profession. Nightingale’s example illustrates an important distinction between a social entrepreneur and a typical social worker or community developer: a social entrepreneur innovates new technologies, systems, or organizations that have far greater impact beyond the entrepreneur’s immediate work (much the same as the McDonalds brothers and Ray Kroc had a greater impact than typical hamburger salesmen).

Today social entrepreneurship has gained much more recognition as a distinct practice, largely due to many entrepreneurs’ track record of creating positive outcomes in the face of governmental (or even NGO) failure, but also because of the efforts of organizations like the Ashoka Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, and Echoing Green, which all support and promote social entrepreneurs. Although social entrepreneurs can be found all over the world, many operate in the BoP: examples include Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus (Grameen Bank), low-cost energy pioneer Fabio Rosa (the Sun Shines For All), and healthcare pioneer Dr. Venkataswamy (Aravind Eyecare).

Obviously not all entrepreneurs who operate in the BoP are social entrepreneurs, but sustainable success in the BoP will likely require businesses to adopt many of the principles and traits of social entrepreneurs: their inventiveness in tackling seemingly intractable problems, their willingness to offer services where few traditional businesses tread, and of course, their passion for catalyzing the creation and spread of positive realities.

Social Entrepreneurship Resources

Foundations that support social entrepreneurs:

University programs: