Social entrepreneurship: It’s not quite nonprofit work, and it’s not quite capitalism.
What it is is a number of businesses, many in the technology sector, trying to make an impact in the world while retaining a traditional business model. This new breed of entrepreneur is more aware than ever about the challenges facing the world, and wants to work to help solve them. Like any other business, these individuals are discovering needs and working to overcome them.
Social entrepreneurship often makes use of the tools endemic to tech startups, placing an emphasis on big data and the latest gadgets to solve problems. Solutions are often iterative, with the “fail forward” mentality that many successful entrepreneurs have adopted over the years. They are often results-driven, less concerned with the minutiae and more concerned with making a tangible impact.
But, for all of this to work, the creation of a strong business model is necessary.
“We shouldn’t believe in a model sustained by philanthropy anymore; the only way of having an income and achieving social improvements is by creating scalable business models,” said Gullermo Jaime Calderón, an entrepreneur striving to improve the housing situation for low-income families in Mexico.
This unconventional approach to change is perhaps indicative of the spirit of social entrepreneurship, namely the drive to be open-minded and approach problems in nontraditional ways. For instance, Mohammand Rezwan tackled the issue of monsoon flooding in Bangladesh, creating floating schools for children to continue their education in spite of the isolation that occurs during a flood. Some entrepreneurs even work to solve multiple problems at once, taking approaches far from the usual standards for philanthropy.
However, these pursuits are far from wild experimentation. Most are backed up by strong market knowledge about the limitations of operating in certain parts of the world. Off Grid Electric, catering to impoverished rural communities in Tanzania and other parts of Africa, offers an affordable solar power solution to families. The company not only addresses the lack of a power grid in many of these countries, but also provides an affordable solution that does not dig their customers deeper into the “poverty trap.” In this case, Off Grid acknowledged that bringing a full-fledged power grid to these homes would be wildly unaffordable to residents, and worked to find a better method. In social entrepreneurship, the most obvious solutions are seldom the ones that make an impact.
Another hallmark of social entrepreneurship is a willingness to change and recover from ventures that may have been less than successful. Despite good intentions, for every story of a philanthropist or business succeeding in making a difference, there are many more about those that did not. This could be due to limitations in scope, or an issue with an approach, or even just a lack of a strong business model. In any case, the best social entrepreneurs are willing to critically evaluate their efforts and adopt a different approach if they recognize that they have fallen short in reaching their objectives. As with any other company, there are risks inherent in these undertakings, but they can be mitigated with strong research and an agile business model.
Many social entrepreneurship ventures are ambitious undertakings. They work to eliminate hunger, slavery, or other ills that many may think unsolvable. Even if they are not, social entrepreneurs have shown that they are willing to put in the work to effect meaningful change, even if there is risk to themselves or their companies. Regardless of the cause, these individuals realize that it is not naive to work towards building a better world, and that a new and pragmatic approach is necessary to do so.