What Drives Us: Social Entrepreneurship Today

“This is what drives us,” he said, “this is why we do what we do.”

The speaker’s words resonated in the back of my head for days after the social entrepreneurship event. How can something so intangible drive hundreds of thousands of people?

Social entrepreneurship is a new trend. It’s new in all the meanings of the word “new” because until very recently in our documented history, people depended on governments for their day to day necessities. I asked an Egyptologist friend of mine if she could think of an example of social entrepreneurship in Ancient Egypt. Her response was that such an example is highly unlikely, because “that’s not how society functioned back then. Temples, for instance, redistributed excess food and supplies to the community. The state took care of everything.” Social entrepreneurship at its core is a people’s movement.

The Roots of the Movement

Though the trend was driven by the people themselves, the movement is not completely detached from the intervention of governments. Governments traditionally tend to complement the private sector by providing products and services where the market is not profitable for businesses, such as the case with public libraries, unemployment benefits or disaster assistance. Despite their best efforts however, governments have a lot on their plates and often face tough choices in allocating resources to service society’s needs, which at times makes meeting those needs at a micro level challenging.
This cleared the way for social entrepreneurship with its bottom-up ideology, representing a different approach to what governments and bureaucracies are used to presently and historically.

Major brands and large businesses have also adopted and continue to consider the concept of social entrepreneurship, attempting to embrace the trend through their corporate social responsibility programs. However, these attempts get de-prioritized by today’s corporate shareholder-driven culture; it becomes difficult to quantify and translate intangible social benefits in a returns on investment form.

As a result, social entrepreneurship has become its own powerhouse of social change. It is the key disruptive innovation of our time. It is a hybrid breed placed at the intersection of the public, private and non-profit sectors. The movement responds to social problems with transformative, financially sustainable innovations in any one of these three sectorial forms.

So why is it a people’s movement? Social entrepreneurship focuses on taking society’s problems and turning them around by creating social capital that isn’t essentially profit-centered. Its impact is measured on a “happiness” scale more than a “financial” one, despite its reliance on generating earned revenue.

More Than Providing for the Poor

How is the notion of “happiness” different than the typical charity giving model? Handing out cash or sending checks in the mail may give people money to spend today, but it typically leaves them dependent on the giver and, in most cases, does not help them establish a source of sustainable revenue. The idea with social entrepreneurship is not to simply provide for the poor, but to actually move the poor from a lack of basic needs situation to a self-reliance situation. It was born out of the belief that individuals can be trusted and can in fact develop the necessary skills to become capable and productive members of society.

Thinking about the concept more technically, according to Abraham Maslow, individuals are motivated by unsatisfied needs, and each individual or each group of individuals is governed by varied unsatisfied needs at any point in time. Grameen Bank was founded in 1983, almost 10 years after professor Muhammad Yunus was moved by a simple Bangladeshi woman who earned the equivalent of 2 US cents a day, facing the question of life or death on a daily basis. It was apparent by then that the governing system had failed to address and provide for the majority of the people who relied on it. Yunus, after numerous failed attempts to find a solution within the Bangladeshi banking system, decided to take matters into his own hands and began micro lending out of his own pocket. A solution was born, a cause was addressed, and a trend was developing.

In today’s world, social enterprising exists in almost every industry of the spectrum: technology, education, retail, telecommunications, lending and banking, or even manufacturing. With a focus on social returns, innovations are being created every day to efficiently channel resources to the community. This is the space that social entrepreneurship occupies. It’s an identified gap where entrepreneurs with fulfilled needs found a way to elevate others who fell at the bottom of the pyramid. And this is what drives us.