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what is social entrepreneurship?

What is social entrepreneurship? An African perspective

Social entrepreneurship has generated a lot of interest in the last 10 years. More and more universities and business schools are offering courses related to social entrepreneurship while the number of social enterprises keeps growing. Just look at Google Trends below to see the rising interest in the last few years:

Social Entrepreneurship Interest over time

Social Entrepreneurship Interest from 2004 till present Google Trends

Social Entrepreneurs are often perceived to be inspirational visionaries who are making the world "a better place". In our experience from discussions, conferences, accelerators and various media articles, social entrepreneurship is mostly framed as positive undertaking. Negative consequences are rarely mentioned.

In this regard, social entrepreneurship shares similarities with the concept of "development".  Despite the deeply problematic neo-colonialist forces that drive "development", the term enjoys mostly positive connotations, at least in the West.

Is it true that social entrepreneurship only has positive consequences as most of its definitions suggest?

An important question is whether our understanding of social entrepreneurship has deepened in the same way that talk and action around this concept have increased substantially over the the last 10-20 years?

Have we paused to reflect on who the dominating forces are that are shaping the discourse around an activity that is seen as an attractive solution to addressing societal challenges in many emerging economies?

In how far is social entrepreneurship an improvement on development aid?

The famous French intellectual Michel Foucault argued that knowledge is always political, because the criteria of what constitutes knowledge, what is to be excluded, and who is qualified to know involves acts of power.

That is why we want to find out not only what social entrepreneurship means, but also who defines the concept for those of us seeking that knowledge.

Given the technological age we live in, we assumed that people with an internet connection would look to google and youtube for answers to the question "what is social entrepreneurship?".  So we decided to explore how these search engine giants would shape our understanding of this concept.

Here is our overview of the 13 social entrepreneurship definitions that can be found on page 1 of Google's SERP for the query "what is social entrepreneurship" at the time of writing in July 2016.

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1) Wikipedia

If you type in the question "what is social entrepreneurship" into google then Wikipedia's definition of social entrepreneurship will be your first search engine result.

what is social entrepreneurship May 2016

Since almost 60% of all organic clicks happen on the first search engine result position the majority of people looking for an answer to this question will look to Wikipedia. That is why it is important to have a look at their definition:

 Social entrepreneurship in modern society offers an altruistic form of entrepreneurship that focuses on the benefits that society may reap. Simply put, entrepreneurship becomes a social endeavor when it transforms social capital in a way that affects society positively. It is viewed as advantageous because the success of social entrepreneurship depends on many factors related to social impact that traditional corporate businesses do not prioritize. Social entrepreneurs recognize immediate social problems, but also seek to understand the broader context of an issue that crosses disciplines, fields, and theories. Gaining a larger understanding of how an issue relates to society allows social entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions and mobilize available resources to affect the greater global society. Unlike traditional corporate businesses, social entrepreneurship ventures focus on maximizing gains in social satisfaction, rather than maximizing profit gains. Both private and public agencies worldwide have had billion-dollar initiatives to empower deprived communities and individuals. Such support from organizations in society, such as government-aid agencies or private firms, may catalyze innovative ideas to reach a larger audience. 

2) Ashoka

Since its founding in 1980 Ashoka has become the largest social entrepreneurial network globally with nearly 3,000 members operating  in over 70 countries worldwide. It was founded by American Bill Drayton to support social entrepreneurs through financial and professional support and access to a global network of connections in the business and social sectors.

Ashoka does not offer a definition of what social entrepreneurship is. Instead it describes what it defines to be a social entrepreneur as follows:

 Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. 
Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to move in different directions. 
Social entrepreneurs often seem to be possessed by their ideas, committing their lives to changing the direction of their field. They are visionaries, but also realists, and are ultimately concerned with the practical implementation of their vision above all else. 
Social entrepreneurs present user-friendly, understandable, and ethical ideas that engage widespread support in order to maximize the number of citizens that will stand up, seize their idea, and implement it. Leading social entrepreneurs are mass recruiters of local changemakers— role models proving that citizens who channel their ideas into action can do almost anything.

3) Skoll Foundation

The Skoll foundation was founded in 1999 by Canadian Internet pioneer Jeff Skoll (eBay) in Palo Alto, California in the United States. The objective is to support large-scale change by investing in and connecting social innovators who solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Since 2001, the foundation is led by CEO Sally Osberg who co-authored the below influential article "Social entrepreneurship: the case for definition" which also ranks amongst the top 10 SERP's for the search query "what is social entrepreneurship".​

The foundation does not directly define what social entrepreneurship is but instead offers the following video and definition of what social entrepreneurs are/do:

Social entrepreneurs are society’s change agents, creators of innovations that disrupt the status quo and transform our world. By identifying the people and programs already bringing positive change, we empower them to extend their reach, deepen their impact and fundamentally improve society.
social entrepreneurship skoll definition

(Image source: Skoll Foundation)

The foundation also has the following video which explains what social entrepreneurship is all about:

4) Stanford Social Innovation Review / Sally Osberg & Roger L. Martin

In 2007, Roger L. Martin & Sally Osberg wrote an influential article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review "Social entrepreneurship: the case for definition". Back then, social entrepreneurship was still very much emerging. It was and perhaps still is trying to find its identity.

The authors argued that almost anything that had a social benefit attached to it was called social entrepreneurship. That is why they argued that the definition of social entrepreneurship was very elusive.

Consequently, the authors set out to offer a definition of what social entrepreneurship is and what it is not. This is the definition they offered:

​   We define social entrepreneurship as having the following three components: (1) identifying a stable but inherently unjust equilibrium that causes the exclusion, marginalization, or suffering of a segment of humanity that lacks the financial means or political clout to achieve any transformative benefit on its own; (2) identifying an opportunity in this unjust equilibrium, developing a social value proposition, and bringing to bear inspiration, creativity, direct action, courage, and fortitude, thereby challenging the stable state’s hegemony; and (3) forging a new, stable equilibrium that releases trapped potential or alleviates the suffering of the targeted group, and through imitation and the creation of a stable ecosystem around the new equilibrium ensuring a better future for the targeted group and even society at large.

5) Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship

Every year the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship recognizes the best social entrepreneurs globally with a prestigious award. They get chosen for "improving the state of the world".

According to the Foundation social entrepreneurship is:

  • About applying practical, innovative and sustainable approaches to benefit society in general, with an emphasis on those who are marginalized and poor.
  • A term that captures a unique approach to economic and social problems, an approach that cuts across sectors and disciplines grounded in certain values and processes that are common to each social entrepreneur, independent of whether his/ her area of focus has been education, health, welfare reform, human rights, workers' rights, environment, economic development, agriculture, etc., or whether the organizations they set up are non-profit or for-profit entities.
  • It is this approach that sets the social entrepreneur apart from the rest of the crowd of well-meaning people and organizations who dedicate their lives to social improvement."

6) Duke University / J. Gregory Dees

The late professor J. Gregory Dees has been described by the Stanford Social Innovation Review as "one of the pioneers of the field of social entrepreneurship" after his passing in December 2013. He has also been appointed to roles at Harvard Business School as well as the Stanford Graduate School of Business where he helped launch Stanford's Centre for Social Innovation (where Stanford Social Innovation Review was founded). Finally, Dees chaired the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council for Social Innovation.

Professor Dees wrote an influential article called "the meaning of social entrepreneurship" in 1998 when he was a Professor in Public Service at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. He offers a definition that places emphasis on discipline and accountability with the notions of value creation:

The meaning of Social Entrepreneurship

(Image source: Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship)

7) Forbes / Gregg Fairbrothers & Catalina Gorla

The authors of this Forbes article share excerpts from Tuck 2013 students Christopher Halstedt & Brad Callow who conducted a study to better understand what exactly social entrepreneurship is. The study mainly focused on for-profit social enterprises.

The article offers the following definition of social entrepreneurship:

   The concept of social entrepreneurship is centered not just on a mission, but on entrepreneurship, making a social benefit focused organization become more like a business. The idea is that nonprofits can benefit from the focus of for-profit business - customer focus, sound strategy, effective planning, efficient operations,  financial discipline. Hopefully the social entrepreneur focuses as  intently on excellence in all of these as any back-to-the-wall for profit entrepreneur. For them, as perhaps it should be for all of us, success is a social value.

8) Technology Innovation Management Review / Samer Abu-Saifan

in 2012, Samer Abu-Saifan, who works for not-for-profit organization Street Haven at the crossroads in Canada, wrote a very valuable article "social entrepreneurship: definitions and boundaries" outlining the history and evolution behind social entrepreneurship.

Social Entrepreneurship definitions over time

(Image source: Technology Innovation Management Review)

This clearly shows how the term has evolved over time and how different people understand it differently. While there have been many evolutions of the term most seem to ascribe positive connotations to it. As we will explore further down, our understanding of this concept needs to evolve further to understand its impact more holistically. 

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Youtube videos: What is social entrepreneurship?

Some people prefer the video format to educate themselves so we decided to also have a look at what youtube could teach us about social entrepreneurship.

If you ask youtube, the world's second largest search engine, then you will get the following answers  in video format at the time of writing from the top 3 positions:

In many cases, these understandings of what social entrepreneurship is, strongly reflect how it has been defined above. Again, it is interesting to note that no African definitions of the concept are amongst the top search results.

In this regard, social entrepreneurship seems to share similarities with the concept of "development" in that it is widely practiced on our continent yet the concept of what social entrepreneurship is, seems to be lacking any contributions from African participants.


Buzzsumo is a tool that lets you find the most shared content on the internet on any topic. So we decided to look at how some of the most shared articles define social entrepreneurship.

Josh Schukman, founder of Social Change Nation, wrote 2 of the top 3 most shared articles one of which was published in the Huffington Post.

what is social entrepreneurship? most shared content buzzsumo

Most shared content on "what is social entrepreneurship" (July 2016)

Schukman defines social entrepreneurship in the following way:

Josh Schukman Founder Social Change Nation

A social entrepreneur is a person who creates a profit and purpose driven organization in which the business and the social mission run in tandem. The social mission, therefore, becomes a key component of their marketing, branding and success metric. 

Arthur Gopak, editor-in-chief of AlphaGamma in his recently published article "The ultimate guide to social entrepreneurship: what is it and the key trends to watch in 2016" which also ranks amongst the top shared articles defines social entrepreneurship the following way:

Arthur Gopak Editor-in-chief AlphaGamma

Social entrepreneurship is (also known as sustainopreneurship or sustainable entrepreneurship) a concept of applying business techniques and private sector practices to find solutions to social, cultural or environmental problems.

The concept of social entrepreneurship may be applied to a variety of organizations with different sizes, aims, and beliefs, but it is commonly applied to starting new organizations.

It is assumed that the company has a purpose that goes beyond just making money, it needs to have a social cause. This cause is measured by the scale of the positive impact an organisation makes with its activity.

The trend that social entrepreneurs are widely perceived to be seen as making the world "a better place" through bringing about "positive social change" seems to be confirmed in many prominent places across the web. Whether one searches on google, youtube or buzzsumo the narrative seems to be fairly consistent. Definitions of this complex term vary, of course, but none seem to question the discourse and the power dynamics that give birth to this concept.

Before we explore some challenging aspects of social entrepreneurship, let us look at what social entrepreneurship is not.

What social entrepreneurship is not

Considering the complexities involved in defining social entrepreneurship and the multiple definitions that exist for it, it is interesting to see how little work has been done on what is NOT social entrepreneurship.

If you ask google about what social entrepreneurship is not the search engine cannot give you any good answers. Google will only find answers for you that attempt to answer what social entrepreneurship is.

Defining what something is not can help to get a clearer understanding of a particular concept. It draws boundaries around a concept that otherwise would be meaningless, because it would be too open.

In this case, Sally Osberg and Martin L. Roger have defined the boundaries of social entrepreneurship in their influential article mentioned above "social entrepreneurship: the case for definition" as follows:

There are two primary forms of socially valuable activity that we believe need to be distinguished from social entrepreneurship. The first type of social venture is social service provision. In this case, a courageous and committed individual identifies an unfortunate stable equilibrium – AIDS orphans in Africa, for example – and sets up a program to address it – for example, a school for the children to ensure that they are cared for and educated. The new school would certainly help the children it serves and may very well enable some of them to break free from poverty and transform their lives. But unless it is designed to achieve large scale or is so compelling as to launch legions of imitators and replicators, it is not likely to lead to a new superior equilibrium.
A second class of social venture is social activism. In this case, the motivator of the activity is the same – an unfortunate and stable equilibrium. And several aspects of the actor’s characteristics are the same – inspiration, creativity, courage, and fortitude. What is different is the nature of the actor’s action orientation. Instead of taking direct action, as the social entrepreneur would, the social activist attempts to create change through indirect action, by influencing others – governments, NGOs, consumers, workers, etc. – to take action. Social activists may or may not create ventures or organizations to advance the changes they seek. Successful activism can yield substantial improvements to existing systems and even result in a new equilibrium, but the strategic nature of the action is distinct in its emphasis on influence rather than on direct action.

Samer Abu-Saifan shares similar views to the above authors on where to draw the boundaries around social entrepreneurship. In his view the term social entrepreneurship should not extend to:

 philanthropists, activists, companies with foundations, or organizations that are simply socially responsible.​

Instead, Abu-Saifan uses a very interesting chart to clearly differentiate between social entrepreneurship and other socially responsible types of behaviours:

Social Entrepreneurship vs other forms of socially responsible types of activities

(Image source: Technology Innovation Management Review)

Challenging Questions

Judging by some of the most used understandings of the term social entrepreneurship we are led to believe that social entrepreneurship is concerned with delivering mission-driven beneficial solutions to society on a self-sufficient basis.

Social entrepreneurship is often closely associated with social innovation, change and value. Yet do we ever ask ourselves in whose view they create social value and for whom?

There are elements of social entrepreneurship that one does not find anywhere in the most prominent definitions of the concept. Harmful and negative aspects of social entrepreneurship somehow never find their way into any of the understandings offered.

Social Entrepreneurship has attracted plenty of criticism. Hila Mehr, in an interesting article "Social Entrepreneurs need to think beyond business", argues that many social enterprises are too focused with building the business side of their organization instead of tackling the root causes of societal problems.

Toms shoes is a case in point. Having pioneered the one-for-one business model, they are one of the most famous social enterprises globally. They set out with the objective to provide free shoes for children in Argentina and other emerging economies who had no shoes.

Start something that matters

The book by Toms founder Blake Mycoskie

Toms business model has proven to be enormously successful commercially. In 2014, just 9 years after its founding, the company was valued at $625m.  Despite this, serious concerns have been raised about the company's actual social impact.

In fact, one of the most famous African social entrepreneurs, Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu criticised Toms for harming local economies where they give away their free shoes.  Local shoe businesses cannot compete with the free shoes Toms offers. As a result, it kills their profits which in turn can lead to more unemployment and poverty. 

This is a good example of how social enterprises can be too focused on building their businesses instead of tackling the root causes of societal problems. These social entrepreneurial realities are not mentioned in any of the definitions.

Social Entrepreneurship in Burkina faso

As a result, consciously or subconsciously the public is lead to believe that social entrepreneurship holds more promise than it actually does. Yes, there are many examples where it has provided valuable entrepreneurial solutions to address societal problems, including in Africa.

At the same time, there are also plenty of examples where social entrepreneurship has failed to provide any kind of value. Even worse, despite good intentions, social entrepreneurship has also created harm and exacerbated societal problems.

In our view, it is important to offer more balanced understandings and definitions of the concept of social entrepreneurship. It can be a viable solution in many situations, but not always and not inherently so. In our view, definitions of social entrepreneurship should be more encompassing and acknowledge this reality.

​Similarly to the discourse around development, it seems that the discourse around social entrepreneurship in terms of what it is and what it is not and how it should be practiced is shaped by institutions based in North America and Europe.

If you read David Lewis' discussion of "development" you could be forgiven for thinking he is talking about social entrepreneurship. There seem to be just too many similarities:

David Lewis Professor of Social Policy & Development at London School of Economics

Few words offer as many definitional difficulties as "development" and it remains a highly contested term. While dictionary definitions focus on the idea of 'a stage of growth and advancement', development remains a complex and ambiguous term which carries with it several layers of meaning. As a verb, "development" refers to activities required to bring about change or progress, and is often linked strongly to economic growth. 

As an adjective, "development"  implies a standard against which different rates of progress may be compared, and it therefore takes on a subjective, judgemental element in which societies and communities are sometimes compared and then positioned at different 'stages' of an evolutionary development schema.

"Development" has also come to be associated with planned social change and the idea of an external intervention by one group in the affairs of another. Often this is in the form of a project, as part of conscious efforts by outsiders to intervene in a less developed community or country in order to produce positive change.

Finally, within radical critiques of development, development is viewed in terms of an organized system of power and practice which has formed part of the colonial and neo-colonial domination of poorer countries by the West. 

It is clear that social entrepreneurship shares many similarities with development and in how far social entrepreneurship is an improvement compared to development remains to be seen. Like development, social entrepreneurship aims to bring about "positive change or progress" and this is often linked strongly to economic growth.

Furthermore, similar to development, social entrepreneurship is often practiced through an external intervention by one group in the affairs of another. Toms shoes comes to mind as an example.

At the same time, there are a growing number of social entrepreneurs from local communities who are providing African solutions to African problems. Examples include social entrepreneurs like Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu from Ethiopia or Luvuyo Rani from South Africa. This is a welcome progression from the many development intiatives in which locals are mostly the beneficiaries but rarely the change makers.

Considering that our continent increasingly demands African solutions to African problems it is curious to note that some of the most well-known African institutions concerned with innovation and entrepreneurship do not offer any definition of what they understand social entrepreneurship to be. Whether that is linked to the view that "all entrepreneurship is social", particularly in Africa where the creation of jobs directly addresses unemployment, social inequality and poverty, is not clear.

African solutions for African problems. #Africa #socent #socinn #socialchange

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Foundations like the Tony Elumelu Foundation, the Bertha Foundation, the African Innovation Foundation or the Mara-Foundation do not offer a direct definition of their understanding of social entrepreneurship. Rather, it seems, that the dominant definitions from above are accepted as as relevant.

Social Entrepreneurship is not charity, damn it!
If you have read our post on "What is social entrepreneurship? An African perspective" then you know that the concept[...]

If we are indeed committed to developing African solutions to African problems then surely we should also develop our own understandings of what social entrepreneurship means, what terms like social change, social value and social innovation mean to us and our communities.  

Otherwise, we continue accepting foreign paradigms that inform our actions. Then we run the risk of working towards a form of social change, innovation and value that is not defined by us. As the history of development has shown, despite good intentions and billions of invested dollars, it has failed too many communities across our continent who were supposed to benefit from this social change.

If we want to avoid a similar fate for the term social entrepreneurship it is essential that as Africans we start participating in what it means and what its related terms like social change, innovation and societal benefits mean. We need to define for ourselves what we mean when we talk of positive social change.

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As Africans, we need to define for ourselves what we mean when we talk about social innovation. #socinn #socent

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Does integrating marginalised communities into our global capitalist economy, where global inequalities seem to rise rather than decline, count as positive change? Why? why not? What is positive change and through which cultural lenses do we judge whether it is positive or not? For who is the change "positive"? The social entrepreneur? Impact Investors? Government? The supposed beneficiaries? These and others are questions that demand African contributions so that we can better understand what positive change means to us in different communities across the continent.

If we do not participate in this discussion, then we run the risk that terms like positive social change, social value and social innovation will be defined according to a capitalist understanding of "positive". History has given us plenty of examples what that means for us as Africans when rubber meets the road.

We should not be doomed to repeat history. So let us make our voices heard and start contributing our definitions of what social entrepreneurship and related terms mean for our continent. 


What social entrepreneurship is and what it is not depends on who you ask. If you ask our good old American friend Google who happens to be the leading search engine in most countries around the world

then you will find that social entrepreneurship seems to be a concept that is defined almost exclusively by Western institutions like Wikipedia, Ashoka, Skoll Foundation, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Said Business School, Stanford Social Innovation Review, the Duke University Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship and Forbes.

In particular, it seems that Jeff Skoll and his foundation have strong influence on the definition of social entrepreneurship. His foundation, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Said Business School in Oxford and Sally Osberg, the CEO of the Skoll Foundation and co-author of the influential article "Social Entrepreneurship: a case for definition" together take up 30% of the 10 places in the google search engine results on page 1 for the query "what is social entrepreneurship".

This gives them a lot of power in shaping the meaning of social entrepreneurship as a concept and what kind of mental model one will ultimately adopt.

Kinsta South Africa

As Africans we are increasingly demanding African solutions to African problems. As such it is our duty to participate more prominently in shaping the terminology around social entrepreneurship as this is an increasingly popular activity across our continent with far reaching consequences.

To ensure that social entrepreneurship delivers the social change, benefits and value that our communities across the continent deserve it is imperative we also start contributing in defining this complex term.  Otherwise, in 30 years time, we may realize that, like development before it, social entrepreneurship has not fulfilled its promise of delivering societal benefits - or that others have, once again, benefited from it more than our people.

About the Author Rise Africa Rise

Rise Africa Rise is your online guide to tech entrepreneurship and (social) innovation for African entrepreneurs, startups and businesses. Our aim is to provide you with valuable digital strategies, tools and insights to support you in building a world-class and competitive business in the 21st century.

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