So you have an entrepreneurial spirit and want to make some positive changes to the world. The problem is you can’t quite figure out a way to combine those two interests into one initiative. Well, it sounds like you are a social entrepreneur, and you’re in need of some ideas.
You may not have ever heard the term “social entrepreneur,” but I’d be willing to bet you’re familiar with the idea.
While there’s no one universally agreed upon definition for social entrepreneurship, you can think of it as any business that is committed to creating social change for the better.
This is obviously a broad definition, and you might imagine how an unscrupulous company might capitalize on the title of social entrepreneurship while doing the absolute minimum to fit into the category.
Like so many things in life, you know social entrepreneurship when you see it. If affecting social change is truly at the core of a business, and that business earnestly pursues affecting that change, well, that’s good enough for me.
You might be thinking that social entrepreneurship is reserved for non-profit businesses. It’s true that there are certainly quite a few that are non-profits, that is by no means a requirement.
Coming up with social entrepreneurship ideas
First, let’s go through a few examples of some notable social entrepreneurs to get the creative juices flowing.
TOMS is probably the most well-known example of social entrepreneurship. Founded by Blake Mycoskie in 2006, it’s business model is simple. For every pair of shoes TOMS sells, it provides one free pair to an impoverished child.
TOMS is an example of a for-profit business founded by a social entrepreneur.
So while TOMS is certainly helping those in need, it’s still managing to turn a pretty penny. In fact, in 2014, Mycosckie sold half his company for $625 million, and his personal wealth is reported to be in the realm of $300 million.
After spending most of his 20’s living a vapid lifestyle as a club promoter in Manhattan, Scott Harrison had a “crisis of conscience” and decided he needed to do something more meaningful with his life.
After spending some time volunteering and soul searching, Harrison founded Charity: Water in 2006. The non-profit raises money that it then uses to build wells and create sustainable water sources in areas where clean water is lacking.
Jacqueline Novogratz is a former Wall Street bigwig who left her job in 1986 to co-found a microfinance institution in Rwanda. Since then she’s been involved in a number of social entrepreneurial endeavors and is most well-known for being the co-founder of Acumen.
Acumen is a non-profit that serves as an engine for other social entrepreneurs. The organization raises money that it then reinvests in companies that focus on serving low-income customers. It has supported companies in Nairobi, Mumbai, San Francisco, and several other places around the globe.
There are countless other examples of social entrepreneurs, and if you’re looking for more inspiration, a simple Google search should do the trick. But now let’s focus on how you can develop social entrepreneurship ideas of your own.
Necessary components for successful social entrepreneurship
This is probably an obvious one right? I mean, you should probably be passionate about something if you’re going to start a business around it, but this is doubly true for a project that hopes to inspire social change. After all, unless you are one of the exceptional few, gold and riches are not waiting for you at the end of this finish line.
Identify causes that are especially meaningful to you. This means more than just globally important, but rather something that will provide you with intrinsic fulfillment.
For example, I recognize that the African Wildlife Foundation does tremendous and important work, but it’s not something I’m particularly passionate about. So, if I wanted to become a social entrepreneur, I would do well to do something in a realm outside of wildlife conservation.
There’s no secret to inspiration. This is one of those things that should be self-evident to you. However, if you’re looking to be inspired, take a page out of the book of many of the successful social entrepreneurs today. Travel—and not to resorts. So many great businesses that are creating social change got their start when their founder traveled and had an eye-opening experience with an underprivileged community.
Unfortunately, it takes more than passion to be a successful social entrepreneur. You need to have a strong business acumen, which likely means knowledge of the industry which you’d like to start your business in.
Remember, your primary goal may not be to generate profits, but without profit, your business will go under soon enough.
If you want to go into business in an area where you don’t already have strong domain knowledge, it’s going to take a lot more learning and research to get started. It may be a good idea to search for a project where both your passion and expertise lie.
Innovation is typically associated with profit-driven companies (again, your company should be profit-driven, but unlike commercial entrepreneurship, profit is a means to an end for you, rather than the end itself).
Many believe that social entrepreneurship requires innovation because “the societal problem would not exist if it could have been dealt with by adopting mainstream approaches,” as the GEM report states. In order to meaningfully address a problem, you’re going to have to find a way to do it that hasn’t been done before.
Ultimately, there’s no one way to come up with your own social entrepreneurship idea. Remember, the field is relatively new, so just because you’re doing something you haven’t seen done before, doesn’t mean it won’t work.