In this post, we’re going to answer two questions: what is social entrepreneurship, and who is a social entrepreneur? And to do so, we’re going to hear from Madeleine Shaw, a social entrepreneur herself, based in British Columbia in Canada.
Madeleine is best known as the founder of Aisle, formerly known as Lunapads, which was one of the first ventures in the world to commercialize reusable menstrual products.
Madeleine not only is a social entrepreneur herself but she’s also written an excellent book on the topic, The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People Who Want to Change the World.
Let’s dive in.
Social Entrepreneurship: A Definition
What is Social Entrepreneurship? And, who is a Social Entrepreneur?
I love that question. And obviously, it’s subjective.
I’m not positing an absolute definition. In fact, I see my definition as being very expansive and very democratic.
Let’s break it down. So, the word entrepreneur is a very long word with lots of vowels. It’s derived from the French verb [entreprendre] meaning to undertake. So to me, by definition, an entrepreneur is somebody who undertakes something; an action or an initiative.
It can be for-profit, it could be non-profit, it doesn’t need to be incorporated at all.
Actually, it could just be a project or something that you love.
But the point is, you are taking action.
Cory’s Note: Madeleine offers up an extremely inclusive definition here for an entrepreneur. It’s not about the structure of the organization you’re choosing to create, it’s not about the business model, it’s not about making an organization at all, really.
It’s about the action you’re taking to undertake some sort of project (very broadly speaking).
The social part, which precedes the word entrepreneur, importantly, comes first, right?
Social is a kind of shorthand for some form of positive social or environmental impact.
That can be anything, honestly, whatever matters to the entrepreneur. But the point is that it’s what motivates and inspires, it’s the central purpose of why the undertaking is being undertaken.
It’s why you do what you do, right? It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning.
As opposed to traditional notions, in a traditional business sense, people are looking to make a profit or capture a certain market segment.
But, it’s not necessarily coming from a primary desire or motivation to make the world a better place in some way.
Cory’s Note: This is an extremely important point.
It’s the social and/or environmental impact that is the WHY, that separates the entrepreneur from the social entrepreneur.
A social entrepreneur is using entrepreneurship as their chosen vehicle for impact. But, different from the conventional, their aim isn’t financial return. Their primary aim is impact. It’s one thing to say this, it’s another to put it into practice.
Where Madeleine doesn’t take it, but I think worthwhile, the social entrepreneur makes decisions to do/not do based on their considerations of the impact they are making—both good or bad.
The question for the social entrepreneur is, how does this decision affect people/planet? Versus the traditional entrepreneur, how does this decision affect my bottom line? Sometimes the decision/outcome can be the same, but it’s a subtle distinction and difference in intent that is key to understanding.
The traditional entrepreneur makes decisions based on the margin, the social entrepreneur makes decisions based on the mission and the motivation to affect important change.
This might not be exactly what Madeleine would argue for, but it would be what I would, in the purest of definitions, I believe that the social entrepreneur would see the triple bottom line (for example) and think that doesn’t signal enough progress for the business community.
People, planet, alongside profit? No, people and the planet should come before profit.
When a decision is made those three considerations shouldn’t be considered equal.
Types of Social Entrepreneurship
As Madeleine shared already, in her definition, a social entrepreneur is someone who undertakes a project or initiative with social or environmental impact as the core purpose.
She mentioned that to her, the project or initiative that a social entrepreneur launches “can be for-profit, it could be non-profit, it doesn’t need to be incorporated at all.”
She takes a particularly broad and inclusive approach to defining social entrepreneurs (more on why below), and so in the same spirit, here are a few types of social entrepreneurship we may see:
For-Profit Social Entrepreneur — It’s very possible that a social entrepreneur might create a for-profit business.
What matters here is that the social or environmental impact is at the core of why the business exists. Sure, the business makes a profit, but the impact of the business is put above all else.
A business, run by a social entrepreneur, is run for the purpose of the impact. Profit is the fuel.
Non-Profit Social Entrepreneur — In our definition (shared with Madeliene), a social entrepreneur doesn’t exclusively have to run a for-profit model.
If for whatever reason, they found the non-profit model more fit to serve the impact they were hoping to meet, then so be it.
This draws attention to a very important piece to this definition: the model of the organization of the project doesn’t so much matter, if impact is the priority, ultimately a social entrepreneur will choose the formal structure that most serves the impact.
Social Intrapreneur — A social entrepreneur doesn’t exclusively have to be the founder of their own business or organization.
Individuals who exhibit particularly entrepreneurial characteristics who work within organizations can be referred to as social intrapreneurs.
While not the CEO, Executive Director, etc., it’s quite possible for someone to take entrepreneurial initiative in leading departments, starting new initiatives, or creating new opportunities.
Project/Initiative-Based Social Entrepreneur — A social entrepreneur can take on a project or initiative without any sort of corporate formation or organization.
These might be one-time community projects or fundraisers for a particular cause.
Why a Broad Definition for Social Entrepreneurship?
Well, it’s to encourage more people to see themselves in that kind of construct or profile.
When I do speaking gigs, one of the things I’ll do is ask the audience. “When I say the word entrepreneur, tell me who you think of, who is the first person who pops into your mind?”
Invariably it is Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, or Richard Branson.
It’s those guys with their big, massive, scalable, tech, blow-it-up, disrupt things, Silicon Valley spaceship, whatever…
That’s a really hard kind of paradigm to relate to if you don’t look like that.
If your project, if your idea is not that big, unicorn sort of thing, then it’s pretty easy to go, “I don’t think I’m that.
And the reason for wanting to broaden that [definition of social entrepreneurship] is because I want more people from diverse backgrounds with really amazing social change ideas to feel that they too, can take action and should be celebrated for doing that.
Cory’s Note: I likewise align with Madeleine on this point here.
Musk, Bezos, Gates, Branson, Zuckerberg. In the mainstream conversation around entrepreneurship, these figures are held up as idols. Larger than life in many respects!
It’s important that this isn’t our only view of entrepreneurship. It’s critical, really.
If the white, male, tech billionaire, or trillionaire for that matter, is held up as the model for what entrepreneurial success looks like, then what does that do to encourage a more diverse, socially-minded individual to launch themselves into the fold of entrepreneurship?
Social Entrepreneurship Examples & Characteristics
What are some examples of social entrepreneurs or social entrepreneurship in action out in the world?
One of the groups of people that really struck me the most are people that I called “Lemonade-Makers” in [The Greater Good], and they’re folks who have drawn on experiences of adversity, frankly, to create change in the world.
Example #1 — The Community Project Social Entrepreneur
So a friend of mine, for example, was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago and had a rough ride. This is a very familiar journey to all too many of us.
But, she really found that through her experience, having the benefit of community support, the sort of extra things and getting massage therapy or getting somebody to come and cut her hair, or various forms of additional support.
That type of thing really made a huge difference in her healing journey.
And so when she came out of it, the other end…she started a community distanced swim in the ocean to raise funds for other folks on [her] island going through cancer treatment and needing that type of community support.
So, it was born of a personal experience where something made a difference to her that she wanted other people to have and [she] started a project.
I believe it’s a registered non-profit society, but I don’t think it really matters. The point is that it was somebody who had something hard touch their lives, bounced back, and sought to make a difference for others based on her own experience.
Example #2 — The For-Profit Social Entrepreneur
My friend, BE Alink who came up with The Alinker walking bike is a really fascinating example. The Alinker is basically an alternative to a wheelchair for lots of people who have difficulty walking and with their mobility.
Basically, her mother said to her, “I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend my elder years in a wheelchair.”
And here was the daughter who had an experience. She was an architect by training, a builder, and an industrial designer. She came up with the idea of this amazing, elevated, grown-up, design-savvy tricycle that allows someone to walk.
So when you speak to them, they’re at eye level. Most people in wheelchairs can actually walk, the wheelchair design is what actually disables the person from walking.
So to me, these are examples of people just drawing on their personal experience, number one. And number two, they’re going outside [their personal experience].
My friend Mary, in the first example, was a personal fitness trainer. She wasn’t an entrepreneur.
Same with my friend BE Alink. They were a designer, they were an architect. Now BE leads this wonderful business, it’s a B Corp, with this really innovative product.
People see something that bugs them, and they do something, they start something.
→ For more examples of social entrepreneurship, see our complete post here.
The Importance of Social Entrepreneurship
Why does social entrepreneurship matter?
Look at the times that we’re in…Climate change has accelerated, and we’ve got an urgent need to achieve racial justice. We’ve so many things…not to mention COVID.
It really is an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation. So what the book [The Greater Good] is, is to encourage all those hands of whatever size, wherever they’re from, whatever they look like, to feel they their ideas are needed and that they’re empowered and resourced to take action on any scale.
And they don’t need to be the next Jeff Bezos to do that
The complete conversation with Madeleine Shaw can be found here. The transcription included above has been edited for concision and clarity.
I also broke down the steps Madeleine outlines in her book, on how to become a social entrepreneur, in this post here.
Madeleine Shaw is an award-winning social entrepreneur, author, speaker, and mentor. She is best known as the founder of Aisle (formerly Lunapads) one of the first ventures in the world to commercialize reusable menstrual products, Nestworks, a family-friendly co-working community in Vancouver, Brittish Columbia, and authoring The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People Who Want to Change the World.
Learn more and connect with her here:
More Resources on Social Entrepreneurship
For more on social entrepreneurship, here are a few podcasts, blogs, and books that we recommend to check out:
- The Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation Podcast, Grow Ensemble
- Disruptors for Good, Cause Artist
- Good Future, John Treadgold
- Social Entrepreneur, Tony Loyd
Blogs / Publications
- Soapbox Project: Journal
- Social Good Blog, Grow Ensemble
- Pioneer Post
- Stanford Social Innovation Review
- The Greater Good, Madeleine Shaw
- Manifesto for a Moral Revolution, Jacqueline Novogratz
- The B Corp Handbook, Ryan Honeyman and Dr. Tiffany Jana
- Rise Up, Russ Stoddard
→ For more books on social entrepreneurship/for social entrepreneurs, check our full post here.
Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble
I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.
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