What is a social entrepreneur?

By Elfren Sicangco Cruz

Posted on January 24, 2012

Social entrepreneurship, like “reinventing capitalism,” has become a buzz word in a society seeking solutions to environmental, economic and financial crisis caused largely by unbridled greed of financial institutions, hedge funds and businessmen who hold that morality has no place in the business world and “greed is good.”

But what is social entrepreneurship? This term has often been confused with social activism which refers to the espousal of political causes.

Almost every definition I have read, including the Wikipedia, states that “social entrepreneurship is the work of a social entrepreneur.”

Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems and who offer new ideas for wide-scale change.

Business entrepreneurs normally focus on changing the face of business by introducing new technologies, innovative solutions, or new products offering new benefits.

Social entrepreneurs are the change agents of society, seizing opportunities that others miss by improving systems, inventing new approaches and creating solutions to change society for the better. Rather than leaving the solutions to societal problems to government or even the business sector, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and address the problem by changing the system, and persuading society to accept the solutions even if they are new proposals.

While they are visionaries, they are also realists and must be concerned with implementation of their vision. A business entrepreneur might change the nature of an industry. A social entrepreneur comes up with new solutions to social problems and then implements on a wide scale.

Among several readings on the topic, the following have been cited as historical examples of social entrepreneurs:

• Wendy Kopp (USA): CEO and founder of Teach for America, the organization works to ensure that children growing up in poverty get an excellent education. They recruit and train recent college graduates of all backgrounds to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools.

• Vinoba Bhave (India): Founder and leader of the Land Gift Foundation, he caused the redistribution of more than 7,000,000 acres of land to aid India’s Untouchables and landless.

• Maria Montessori (UK): Developed the Montessori approach to early childhood education.

• Muhammad Yunus (Bangladesh): Founded the Grameen Bank which has reversed the conventional banking practice by removing the need for collateral and created a banking system based on mutual trust, accountability and provides credit to the poorest of the poor.

• G. Venkataswany (India): Founded Aravind Eye Care System which today is the largest and most productive eye care facility in the world. In one year, April 2007-March 2008, about 2.4 million persons received outpatient eye care and over 285,000 have undergone eye surgeries in five of its eye hospitals making eye care affordable, accessible and financially self sustaining.

• John Muir (USA): Naturalist and conservationist, he established the National Park System and helped found the Sierra Club.

• Margaret Sanger (USA): Founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she led the movement for family planning efforts around the globe.

• Ibrahim Abouleish (Egypt): Founder of a social venture called Sekem which today is a multi-business. It was instrumental in reducing pesticide use in Egypt cotton fields by 90% and has created institutions such as schools, a university, an adult education and a medical center.

There are examples of social entrepreneurship here in the Philippines. The La Salle Brothers offer evening high school classes for poor students. The classes are held using the classrooms and facilities of its “elite” schools like La Salle-Greenhills and other similar schools. Students from poor families are given access to the world class education that La Sallian schools offer.

Certainly former president Corazon Aquino was a visionary social entrepreneur. Her vital role in the restoration of democracy after the Marcos dictatorship is very well known. After her presidency, she started using her influence to promote micro financing as a major tool in the war against poverty. The Ninoy Aquino Foundation continues to be a major advocate of micro financing.

I read a media report that San Miguel Corp., instead of just donating money, will use its corporate resources to build a community of 5,000 homes for the displaced families of tropical storm Sendong.

I believe that education is the ideal solution to poverty and a life of human dignity for the common man. Therefore, for me one of the most exciting social entrepreneurial project that can be launched is “Teach For the Philippines,” as a counterpart of the Teach For America movement. In its literature, I just substituted the word Philippines for “America.”

“Teach for the [Philippines] is growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education. Today, poverty limits educational opportunity -- but it doesn’t have to be that way. Although millions of [Filipino] children face the extra challenges of poverty, an increasing body of evidence shows that they can achieve at the highest level.

We recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.

All kids -- no matter where they live, how much money their parents make, or what their skin color is -- deserve access to a great education. But in our country today, a significant achievement gap exists between the low income children and their wealthier peers. It’s not easy to close this gap, but hundreds of proof points show that it is possible. It takes committed leaders in our classrooms today who will continue to fight for students tomorrow. Teach for the [Philippines’] mission is to build the movement to eliminate educational iniquity by developing such leaders.”

Bill Drayton, chair and founder of Ashoka, a social enterprise, said it best: “Social entrepreneurs are not content to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”

Dr. Elfren S. Cruz is a professor of Strategic Management at the MBA Program, Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business, De La Salle University. Please send comments or questions to elfrencruz@gmail.com