What is a Social Entrepreneur?


Everywhere I look, I see this term. While I think I know what it means, I got to wondering how others define it.

But first, a confession. Having begun my career in corporate finance, my curiosity often starts with finding the market mechanisms that leverage social change. There are so many different directions to go in learning about social entrepreneurs (including Babson College’s Social Innovation Lab that we heard about at an event last month). I’ll start here with a few thoughts on how a person can invest in a social entrepreneur, and the global change that is their unique vision.

Wikipedia tells us that social entrepreneurism is the process of pursuing innovative solutions to social problems; social entrepreneurs relentlessly pursue opportunities to create and sustain social value, while continuously adapting and learning.

Two PBS specials offer examples. The New Heroes says that a social entrepreneur identifies and solves social problems on a large scale. Just as business entrepreneurs create and transform whole industries, social entrepreneurs act as the change agents for society. Agents for Change gives us 15 Young Go-Getters You’ll Want to Meet.

If you’re near the SF Bay Area, these events are worth attending to learn more. (And let me know of others to share!)

  1. Pipeline Fellowship Changing the Face of Angel Investing in San Francisco next Wednesday, June 12 at 9am. Catalytic Women and S.H.E. Summit are collaborators.
  2. HUB Ventures Demo Days at Facebook HQ, also next Wednesday, June 12 at 6pm.
  3. Young Women Funding Social Impact in San Francisco, Thursday, June 20 at 8am: Calvert FoundationKivaOne Percent FoundationSparkSF and Young Women Social Entrepreneurs are event partners (with Catalytic Women) and they know a lot about social entrepreneurs.
  4. Startup Weekend Women, September 13-15 in San Francisco, is an intensive weekend profiling female founders. There will definitely be some remarkable social (and traditional) entrepreneurs on stage.

Imprint Capital and Equilibrium Capital are firms specializing in impact investing — investing in social entrepreneurs. Here’s some language that they use to describe their focus.

  • Investments made in companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate measurable social and environmental impact alongside a financial return.
  • Investment strategies rooted in hard economics and macro challenges, such as expanding consumption in developing nations, rising costs and constraints of natural resources, increasing financial and environmental risks from pollution and climate change, creating sustainable lifestyle product choices based on health and well being, shifting supply chain strategies, and creating policy and regulatory changes to manage limited natural resources.

One investment that Imprint Capital and RSF Social Finance mention is the Root Capital Women in Agriculture Initiative fund, which targets underserved women-run and women-centered businesses in Africa and Latin America. RSF’s Social Investment Fund allows anyone with $1,000 to invest in a direct loan fund funding nonprofit and for-profit social enterprises.

ImpactAssets goes one step farther. They offer donor advised funds that leverage investments to earn a return and create positive social and environmental impact, and also increase the amount of capital flowing to high impact social and environmental enterprises.

Calvert Foundation, which incubated ImpactAsset, offers various community investmentoptions starting at a mere $20, including WIN-WIN (Women Investing in Women Initiative).

Social entrepreneurs go deep on a particular issue that can change the world. Last week 4,500 leaders and social entrepreneurs gathered in Kuala Lumpur for the Women Deliver conference to learn about partnerships and solutions to help prevent 350,000 deaths each year of girls and women from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes. Their vision for social change: maternal health is both a human right and a practical necessity for sustainable development.

As I write and am awed to know so many people — women and men — who are leading this work, including a few who’ve just returned from Kuala Lampur. What about you? How do you fund social entrepreneurs? We’d love to build a program around it this fall.

Photo of one of the participants in Nest, an organization that offers business consulting in developing countries. Photo courtesy of Nest and PBS NewsHour.


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