NOTE: This article was originally published on the Trico Charitable Foundation website and has been cross-posted with permission.
Social Entrepreneurship = Social x Entrepreneurship
We can sum up how we came to this point, and the layered meaning in this deceptively simple equation, in three key inflection points:
If we have learned anything from the ongoing debates about the definition of social entrepreneurship it’s: a) there is no one single definition and b) one’s goals invariably shape how one defines social entrepreneurship.
For the Trico Foundation, the goal of social entrepreneurship is to solve social problems. As a result, for us, the core elements of social entrepreneurship are the goal of solving a social problem (the ‘social’ element) and using markets or business models to achieve that goal (the ‘entrepreneurship’ element). *
While its core elements are ‘social’ and ‘entrepreneurship’, social entrepreneurship is at its best when it does more than simply add those two elements together.
Typically, simply adding on a social element to an entrepreneurial organization ends in greenwashing (noble goals are quickly abandoned in pursuit of the dollar), and simply adding on a business model to a social purpose organization can lead to internal friction, frustration and failed ventures.
Social entrepreneurship works best when ‘social’ and ‘entrepreneurship’ are blended so that market success and social impact mutually reinforce each other and become virtually indivisible. The results become so much more than the sum of their parts and new, boundary-pushing realities become possible.
Admittedly, there are occasions where yellow and blue do not combine to produce green. For example, when a small drop of one color is added to and quickly disappears amongst an ocean of the other color. But that’s not blending, that’s subjugation. Sadly, that happens all too often when the social or the entrepreneurial is simply added on to an organization.
Note that when yellow and blue do actually blend, the more reciprocal it is the deeper and richer the green becomes. As well, the more reciprocal the blend, the greater the difference between green and either of its parent colors. Indeed, it is hard to picture green by just thinking ‘yellow plus blue’. Imagine how difficult it would be to picture how those two colors blend if you have never seen green.
Ironically, this is one of the main challenges facing social entrepreneurship. The rich and deep blending of social and entrepreneurship is creating such profoundly new organizations our old thinking of ‘ you can be a social organization or an entrepreneurial organization, but not both ‘ is having a hard time comprehending how they can truly combine.
Too often people are hearing “social entrepreneurship” and thinking “blue + yellow” rather than green.
Social entrepreneurship owes its existence to the rejection of the myth that you can’t earn money and solve social problems at the same time. It’s ironic; many that come to social entrepreneurship subconsciously perpetuate that myth by making one of its core elements subservient to the other. Typically this is seen in the business-minded social entrepreneurs who are all too willing to sacrifice social goals in the name of profit and in social-minded social entrepreneurs who are willing to sacrifice market success in the name of social impact.
The truth is, like sleeping and eating, the social and entrepreneurial sides of social entrepreneurship are inescapably inter-dependent. Habitually neglecting one in favour of the other inevitably leads to trouble.
Returning to our example of blending colors, consider how ridiculous it is to ask “in green, which is more important, the yellow or the blue?” Yet, “in social entrepreneurship, which is more important, the social or the entrepreneurship?” is asked all the time. Indeed, it is a huge discussion in the social entrepreneurship movement. We’ll have turned a corner as a society when “in social entrepreneurship, which is more important, the social or the entrepreneurship?” gets the same looks of incredulity as “in green, which is more important, the yellow or the blue?”
That’s why celebrating and analyzing examples of social and entrepreneurial blends – the deeper and the more synergistic the better – are absolutely crucial (we call it the ‘who and how imperative’). Speaking of examples, there are some pretty amazing ones
But our folly in allowing the social to be divided from the entrepreneurial doesn’t end there. If the key goal is to solve the world’s social problems, we are squandering a lot of shared learning, cross-pollination and partnership opportunities by keeping those who come from the ‘business side’ of social entrepreneurship separate from those who come from the ‘social side’ of social entrepreneurship. Sadly, this is a divide that occurs all too often. It happens whenever a socially-minded business person assumes that any social organization is inefficient and risk adverse, and it happens whenever a social advocate suggests that ‘entrepreneurial’ means greedy.
It’s time we lost any of the attitudinal baggage that comes whenever the social and entrepreneurial worlds are brought together. These ideas work better when blended with mutual respect and synergy, and so do we.
What we need is a formula that recognizes the core elements of social entrepreneurship, moves us past the mentality of the simple ‘add on’, and celebrates the exponential power of social entrepreneurship when the core elements are truly blended into a mutual and synergistic whole. Enter:
Maybe, just maybe, “Social Entrepreneurship = Social x Entrepreneurship” and its abbreviated version SE= SxE, could help galvanize the social entrepreneurship movement, cast away our old thinking once and for all, and spark the widespread mind shift we need to solve our most perplexing and daunting social problems.
Maybe, just maybe.
*For the record, we see social enterprise as the organization, social entrepreneurship as the activity, and a social entrepreneur as the individual.