We all understand the idea of entrepreneurship. Someone takes the leap to set up their own business with an ambition to make that business successful and profitable. But what is a social entrepreneur? And how is this concept making a difference to the way we shop and to the world as a whole?
What is social entrepreneurship?
Social entrepreneurship (also known as altruistic entrepreneurship) means setting up a business with the explicit aim of supporting a chosen cause. Social entrepreneurs use a business model that combines profitability with purpose – they find investment, generate profit and then donate some or all of that profit to a project that benefits people or the planet.
In addition, a social entrepreneur will be keen to take stock of their business impact across the board. Whatever the destination of their funds, social enterprises tend to examine the environmental, social and ethical impact of their business operations, aiming to limit harm and do good wherever possible.
So in summary, a social entrepreneur will usually build a business that:
1. Has a core aim of giving back to society.
2. Is able to generate its own profit.
3. Is sustainable.
4. Is ethical.
Why do social entrepreneurs do what they do?
Social entrepreneurship isn't always an easy thing to do. So why do social entrepreneurs donate their profits to social causes? And what appeals to them about social entrepreneurship?
They get to make a difference
Younger generations have shown a commitment to building and buying from businesses that have a positive impact on society. When social entrepreneurs start a business they hope to generate enough money to meet their pay check. But another driving motivation is improving the quality of life of others and making a difference to the world. In living their social entrepreneurship dream, social entrepreneurs get to build a fulfilling career with meaning and purpose.
It’s what consumers want
Consumers are increasingly aware of not just what they are buying but who they are buying from. They want to know that their purchases aren’t harming the wellbeing of other people or the planet. UnLtd found that 73% of today’s consumers are more likely to buy from entrepreneurs and brands that prioritise a social cause over profit. And that percentage gets even higher for consumers under the age of 35. That means enterprises that can demonstrate ethical supply chains, sustainability and a “give back” mentality will attract more custom than those that can’t.
Some well-known social entrepreneurs
Here are some big-name social entrepreneurs leading the way in social enterprise.
Muhammad Yunus is a social entrepreneur who won a Nobel Prize for his work developing the Grameen Bank. The bank provides small, affordable loans to people living in poverty. It primarily helps women – who make up 97% of its borrowers – and now has 2,568 branches across Bangladesh. This social enterprise has improved the lives of some of the world’s poorest people and has even been accredited with reducing childhood mortality in Bangladesh.
Mycoskie is another high profile social entrepreneur and the founder of TOMS. From the very beginning, he developed the brand with a focus on social causes. Nowadays, you can buy a product from TOMS and a third of the profit generated will go to support organisations invested in social change.
The company invests specifically in “grassroots efforts”. These are community led initiatives, driving change from the ground up. And they fall into one of TOMS’ three key issue areas – promoting mental health, ending gun violence and increasing access to opportunity.
The third social entrepreneur on our list is Debbie Sterling. She's an engineer and toymaker who wanted to challenge the gender stereotypes propagated by children’s toys. Sterling recognised that women were hugely underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers and so created GoldieBlox. The company creates toys, books, apps and videos that inspire and empower girls to learn more about these topics.
Craig and Marc Kielburger
Brothers, Craig and Marc, set up both the WE Charity and the ME To WE social enterprise. The social entrepreneurial pair started campaigning against social wrongs from their parents’ kitchen as children.
Now, ME To WE sells Fairtrade products and organises volunteer trips abroad. In doing the social enterprise has created thousands of well-paid jobs for artisans and those hosting and supporting volunteer trips. A minimum of 50% of profits from the company are also invested in the company’s charitable arm, with this figure closer to 90% for the past five years. The charity works to improve access to food, water, health, education and opportunity in some of the world’s most disadvantaged communities.
A summary of our social entrepreneurs
1. Muhammad Yunus - founder of Grameen Bank, which helps poverty-stricken Bangladeshi access microcredit.
2. Blake Mycoskie - founder of TOMS, which donates a third of its profits to grassroots community projects.
3. Debbie Sterling - founder of GoldieBlox, which inspires girls to take up careers in STEM.
4. Craig and Marc Kielburger, founders of ME to WE, which invests at least 50% of its profits into the WE Charity.
A few social enterprises you should get to know
The companies on this list might not have big-name social entrepreneurs behind them but they're still doing lots of good for a wide range of communities.
Better World Books
Three college friends became social entrepreneurs when they set up Better World Books in a bid to improve literacy and access to books within their community. For every book they now sell, they donate one book to Feed the Children, Books for Africa and other smaller literacy organisations. The company also provides grants to literacy and educational non-profits and libraries.
Harry Specters is a chocolate-making company, set up by a couple worried about how their autistic son would fare in the job market. Harry Specters employs people on the autistic spectrum to make their chocolates. Sixty per cent of the profit generated by the business is invested in social activities and personal development opportunities for the company’s autistic staff.
Love Your Melon
Zachary Quinn and Brian Keller are the social entrepreneurs behind Love your Melon. Their onelin apparel store started out by donating a beanie hat to a child with cancer for every hat bought from their store. Now they donate 50% of their profits to non-profit organisations around the world, all focused on helping children and families fighting paediatric cancer.
Kuli Kuli Foods
Developed by a social entrepreneur and Peace Corp volunteer inspired by her time in West Africa, Kuli Kuli Foods sells plant-based shakes, teas and energy bars made from moringa – a superfood grown primarily in India, Africa and South America.
The company works with women-led farming co-operatives, offering sustainable livelihoods and promoting sustainable agricultural practices too. Since it was founded, Kuli Kuli foods has supported over 3,234 women and family farmers and helped them to generate $5.2 million in revenue.
A summary of these social enterprises
1. Better World Books - run by three college friends turned social entrepreneurs to improve literacy and access to books.
2. Harry Specters - a chocolate shop that employs and supports autistic people who would otherwise struggle to find jobs.
3. Love Your Melon - founded by social entrepreneurs, Zachary Quinn and Brian Keller, this apparel store donates profits to paediatric cancer support.
4. Kuli Kuli Foods - a superfood store that supports women-led farming cooperatives along with sustainable agriculture in Africa.
FlyGRN and TreeClicks are social enterprises too!
Here at FlyGRN our driving purpose is the planet. Our founder, Jelle Bekirovic, ventured into social entrepreneurship in a bid to combat climate change and preserve the environment for generations to come.
Flying is bad for the environment. But it’s sometimes unavoidable. We aim to limit the negative impact of air travel on the planet by offsetting the carbon costs involved.
We do this through our flight search engine. Find and book flights through our search engine and we receive a commission fee from the airline you’ve chosen. We then use this fee to fund projects that help to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This includes reforestation projects and replacement of coal stoves for solar-powered cookers in Chad.
Over at TreeClicks, our sister company, we plants trees when our users shop. Whilst consumerism is ultimately bad for the planet, TreeClicks aims to do good on the back of those inevitable purchases.
Our social enterprise partners with thousands of online stores. When users make a purchase at one of these stores via the TreeClicks web browser or app, the stores pay a fee to TreeClicks. Part of this fee then funds tree planting initiatives around the world, at no extra cost to the consumer.
A growing number of enterprises want to make a social impact. They care about the bigger picture – the way their business impacts upon and can benefit a range of important causes. Social entrepreneurs and the enterprises they run may employ disadvantaged people or help the environment or divert their profits to a selection of designated charities.
Whatever the cause in question, if you’re keen to shop with a social enterprise, do your research. Look for social entrepreneurs and companies who are transparent and specific about how and what they give back. You can then be confident that any purchases you make from these enterprises will really make a difference.