Social entrepreneurship gains momentum - Activate World

Social entrepreneurship gains momentum

Social entrepreneurs are mission-driven individuals who use a set of entrepreneurial behaviors to deliver a social value to the less privileged, all through an entrepreneurially oriented entity that is financially independent, self-sufficient, and sustainable. Social entrepreneurship has the imperative to drive social change, and it is that promise, with its lasting, transformational benefit to society, that sets the field and its practitioners apart. 

Lunchtime conversations:

  • The social enterprise delivers more than commercial value, and it’s the additional social value that often ignites the passion of the social entrepreneur. Since it’s difficult to measure social value, how can social entrepreneurs objectively communicate the social value of the organization to investors, donors, or the community at large? 
  • As the CEO of a social startup, how would you balance social value and revenue generation to ensure appropriate goals and drive growth in a sustainable manner? 
  • Diversity is fundamental to the sustained success of any innovation ecosystem. How can social entrepreneurs do more to promote diversity in entrepreneurship and technological innovation and its impact on greater economic and social value?


  • Entrepreneurs see opportunities in the status quo to create something new, while others see it as an inconvenience to be tolerated. This ability stems from the unique set of personal characteristics he or she brings to the situation – inspiration, creativity, direct action, courage, and fortitude. These characteristics are fundamental to the process of innovation.
  • According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), “Early-stage, social entrepreneurs can drive new social movements because they have the authenticity to do so. In short, they mine their personal experiences, hack the current system, and often anchor new social movements via a new organization that drives community action.”
  • Also, from the SSIR, “Entrepreneurs demonstrate courage throughout the process of innovation, bearing the burden of risk and staring failure squarely if not repeatedly in the face. This often requires entrepreneurs to take big risks and do things that others think are unwise, or even undoable.”


Ashoka founder and CEO Bill Drayton first used the term “social entrepreneurship” in the early 1980s, and it continues to inspire images of transformative social change—the kind that sweeps away the old approaches to solving intractable social problems such as disease, hunger, and poverty. Like business entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship involves a wave of creative disruption that remakes society focused on changing the underlying dynamics that create the demand for services in the first place. Instead of treating society’s distress, social entrepreneurship seeks to eliminate the distress altogether.

During the early phases of social entrepreneurship, the majority of organizations pursuing social innovations were non-profits. In the past few years we have seen the rise of for-profit organizations that address a basic unmet need or solve a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approach.

Today, businesses are entering a whole new paradigm for management, one which considers a business less as a “company” and more as an “institution,” integrated into the social fabric of society. In the Deloitte Human Capital Trends Survey 2018, The rise of the Social Enterprise, 65% of companies surveyed now rate “inclusive growth” as one of their top three goals, eclipsing strategies like “growing market share” or “being the category leader.”

“Citizenship and social impact” were rated critical or important by 77% of respondents, and this topic was rated the “least ready” issue among the executives surveyed. The need to create 21st century careers, improve the relevance of reward systems, focus on employee well-being, and address the issue of longevity in the workforce all rated as top 10 issues in the human capital agenda.

Companies like Toms, Warby Parker and Uncommon Goods have pushed the concept of social impact into the mainstream by creating successful business models built around helping others. This trend has led to the rise of B Corporations, a certification for companies that meet high standards of social responsibility. The program started in 2007, and now more than 2,500 companies have been certified in more than 50 countries.

MIT Solve, a social tech incubator launched in 2016, is backing small, for-profit ventures taking on global issues, from access to clean water to the need for a circular economy. Each year, Solve issues a set of four challenges that cover sustainability, health, economics, and education. Past challenges included: How can individuals and corporations manage and reduce their carbon contributions? How can urban communities increase their access to sustainable and resilient food and water sources? How can coastal communities mitigate and adapt to climate change while developing and prospering? 

For each challenge, Solve issues an open call to tech innovators to submit ideas for projects to address it; the finalists, who usually number around 30 out of over 1,000 submissions, receive technical and financial support from MIT in bringing their projects to market and scaling them up.

Sources: Fast CompanyForbes, Harvard Business ReviewThe New York TimesStanford Social Innovation Review