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Put simply, missional entrepreneurism is a way of expressing a Christian’s approach to “social enterprise” and is in many ways synonymous with this definition from the Skoll Foundation:
Entrepreneurs are essential drivers of innovation and progress. In the business world, they act as engines of growth, harnessing opportunity and innovation to fuel economic advancement. Social entrepreneurs act similarly, tapping inspiration and creativity, courage and fortitude, to seize opportunities that challenge and forever change established, but fundamentally inequitable systems.
Social entrepreneurs pioneer innovative and systemic approaches for meeting the needs of the marginalized, the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised—populations that lack the financial means or political clout to achieve lasting benefit on their own.
Distinct from a business entrepreneur who sees value in the creation of new markets, the social entrepreneur aims for value in the form of transformational change that will benefit disadvantaged communities and ultimately society at large. Social entrepreneurs pioneer innovative and systemic approaches for meeting the needs of the marginalized, the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised—populations that lack the financial means or political clout to achieve lasting benefit on their own.
Throughout history, such individuals have introduced solutions to seemingly intractable social problems, fundamentally improving the lives of countless individuals by changing the way critical systems operate. Florence Nightingale and Maria Montessori offer two prominent historical examples. Muhammad Yunus, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize, is a more recent example. He began offering microloans to impoverished people in Bangladesh in 1976, thereby empowering them to become economically self-sufficient and proving the microcredit model that has now been replicated around the world.
While social entrepreneurship isn’t a new concept, it has gained renewed currency in a world characterized by a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots. With this heightened visibility, social entrepreneurs at the forefront of the movement are distinguishing themselves from other social venture players in terms of ultimate impact.
One example is social entrepreneur Bunker Roy, who created the Barefoot College in rural communities in India to train illiterate and semiliterate men and women, whose lack of educational qualifications keeps them mired in poverty. Today Barefoot College graduates include teachers, health workers and architects who are improving communities across India, including 450 “barefoot” engineers who have installed and maintain solar-electrification systems in 547 villages that reach nearly 100,000 people.
They recognize the extraordinary potential in the billions of poor people who inhabit the planet, and they are absolutely committed to helping them use their talents and abilities to achieve their potential.
Another example is Ann Cotton, who started the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) in 1993 to achieve the simple goal of ensuring an education for young girls in Africa whose families cannot afford school fees. By establishing a sustainable model that provides community support for girls to go to school, start businesses and return to their communities as leaders, CAMFED has broken the cycle of poverty for hundreds of thousands of young women in Zimbabwe, Ghana, Zambia and Tanzania. In 2006 alone, more than 300,000 children benefited from education programs supported by a network of more than 5,100 young women who have themselves benefited from CAMFED-supported education and microfinance programs.
These and other social entrepreneurs are solution-minded pragmatists who are not afraid to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems. They recognize the extraordinary potential in the billions of poor people who inhabit the planet, and they are absolutely committed to helping them use their talents and abilities to achieve their potential. Social entrepreneurs use inspiration, creativity, courage, fortitude and, most importantly, direct action, to create a new reality—a new equilibrium—that results in enduring social benefit and a better future for everyone.
Social entrepreneurs are:
- Ambitious: Social entrepreneurs tackle major social issues, from increasing the college enrollment rate of low-income students to fighting poverty in developing countries. These entrepreneurial leaders operate in all kinds of organizations: innovative nonprofits, social purpose ventures such as for-profit community development banks, and hybrid organizations that mix elements of nonprofit and for-profit organizations.
- Mission Driven: Generating social value—not wealth—is the central criterion of a successful social entrepreneur. While wealth creation may be part of the process, it is not an end in itself. Promoting systemic social change is the real objective.
- Strategic: Like business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs see and act upon what others miss: opportunities to improve systems, create solutions and invent new approaches that create social value. And like the best business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs are intensely focused and hard-driving-even relentless-in their pursuit of a social vision.
- Resourceful: Because social entrepreneurs operate within a social context rather than the business world, they have limited access to capital and traditional market support systems. As a result, social entrepreneurs must be exceptionally skilled at mustering and mobilizing human, financial and political resources.
- Results Oriented: Ultimately, social entrepreneurs are driven to produce measurable returns. These results transform existing realities, open up new pathways for the marginalized and disadvantaged, and unlock society’s potential to effect social change.
Today, social entrepreneurs are working in many countries to create avenues for independence and opportunity for those who otherwise would be locked into lives without hope. They range from Jim Fruchterman of Benetech, who uses technology to address pressing social problems such as the reporting of human rights violations, to John Wood of Room to Read, who helps underprivileged children gain control of their lives through literacy. They include Marie Teresa Leal, whose sewing cooperative in Brazil respects the environment and fair labor practices, and Inderjit Khurana, who teaches homeless children in India at the train stations where they beg from passengers.
Whether they are working on a local or international scale, social entrepreneurs share a commitment to pioneering innovation that reshape society and benefit humanity. Quite simply, they are solution-minded pragmatists who are not afraid to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.
Background on Social Entrepreneurship
What do Jane Addams, Maria Montessori and Muhammad Yunus have in common? All are exemplary social entrepreneurs, leaders who have identified sustainable solutions to social problems that have fundamentally changed society.
- Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889, a social settlement to improve conditions in a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago, then expanded her efforts nationally. Addams gained international recognition as an advocate of women’s rights, pacifism and internationalism, and served as the founding president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Her work ultimately resulted in protective legislation for women and children.
- Maria Montessori, the first female physician in Italy, began working with children in 1906 and created a revolutionary education method that supports each individual child’s unique development. Montessori schools allow each child to realize his or her full potential by fostering social skills, emotional growth and physical coordination, in addition to cognitive preparation.
- Muhammad Yunus revolutionized economics by founding the Grameen Bank, or “village bank,” in Bangladesh in 1976 to offer “microloans” to help impoverished people attain economic self-sufficiency through self-employment, a model that has been replicated in 58 countries around the world.
As the actions of these historical figures illustrate, the term “social entrepreneur” may be relatively new, but the phenomenon is not.
Just as entrepreneurs change the face of business, social entrepreneurs act as the change agents for society, seizing opportunities others miss and improving systems, inventing new approaches and creating sustainable solutions to change society for the better. However, unlike business entrepreneurs who are motivated by profits, social entrepreneurs are motivated to improve society. Despite this difference, social entrepreneurs are just as innovative and change-oriented as their business counterparts, searching for new and better ways to solve the problems that plague society.
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