10 Things Social Entrepreneurship Is Not

June 22, 2016

Entrepreneurship in the hands of Millennials is not your father’s capitalism. As my mom continues to remind me with each new, lovingly botched introduction, explaining what a “social entrepreneur” is remains a challenge for even those who have been supporting this next generation of entrepreneurship for more than a decade now.

As the largest transfer of power and wealth in history proceeds in the coming decades, it is increasingly important for us to have a common understanding of what a more “social” form of entrepreneurship means for entrepreneurs, investors, and families alike. The intimate understanding of the triple bottom line we Millennials sometimes take for granted does not translate to most Americans.

And so it is that after many years of trial and error, my mother still can’t tell her friends what the hell I do for a living. The experiences I’ve had in launching the full spectrum of startups including commercial, social, and hybrid ventures have taught me that instead of trying to describe what social entrepreneurship is, most people understand it better when I clarify what it is not.

So here’s how you should explain social entrepreneurship to your mothers.

1. Social entrepreneurship is NOT Facebook. This is the most common misunderstanding. It is not entrepreneurship related to social network platforms. While those platforms undoubtedly led to some positive social ends, the key difference is that they weren’t designed with that explicit intent. Social entrepreneurs necessarily set out to launch financially sustainable new ventures that change the world in some measurable way.

2. Social entrepreneurship is NOT ‘entrepreneurship-lite.’ Being a founder is one of the hardest jobs on the planet, period. While the odds remain stacked against any entrepreneur of any type, experts in the field have long recognized the inherent added difficulties of balancing mission and profits simultaneously. The stars of social entrepreneurship are not the benchwarmers of our commercial counterpart. In fact, we’re often the MVPs of both.

3. Social entrepreneurship is NOT charity. Obviously, a social entrepreneur would happily take “free” money in the form of grants or donations if the opportunity were to arise; anyone would. But we would prefer to earn income through the sale of a product or service because part of our focus is on the financial sustainability of our missions.

4. Social entrepreneurship is NOT nonprofit. Social entrepreneurs could care less about the nuances of legal structures and corporate tax statuses. The only thing we care about is what will most efficiently and effectively create the change we want to see in the world.

5. Social entrepreneurship is NOT anti-profit. Social entrepreneurs have no problem making money; we just believe that doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive.

6. Social entrepreneurship is NOT better than its commercial counterpart. We are often past or future titans of industry, and while their current work may be focused on leveraging the tools of innovation to help people, they’re experiences translate perfectly into the traditional for-profit startup world.

7. Social entrepreneurship is NOT a fad (nor is it the invention of ‘entitled Millennials’). The use of the tools of entrepreneurship and innovation to create social impact is as old as Buddha and Confucius. With Millennials matching Baby Boomers relative to the workforce and electorate, the field will only increase in awareness and use.

8. Social entrepreneurship is NOT corporate social responsibility. For-profit corporations have finally figured out that we want to know our favorite consumer brand provider shares our values. However, most CSR is motivated by profit maximization and a desire to appeal to consumers, not social impact.

9. Social entrepreneurship is NOT just for young professionals. Millennial social entrepreneurs stand on the shoulders of every generation before us. We have almost uniformly been influenced by older progressives who at some point along the way learned that a small group of committed individuals really can change the world, regardless of what they’re called.

10. Social entrepreneurship is NOT limited to the nonprofit sector. The misconception that social entrepreneurship is necessarily synonymous with the nonprofit sector and charitable business models could not be further from the truth. As would any businessperson, a social entrepreneur leverages all tools and resources available, regardless of legal structure or tax status. With the advent of L3Cs and benefit corporations, the lines between for-profit and nonprofit continue to blur.

Once upon a time, the mothers of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates undoubtedly struggled to tell people what their sons did for a living, too. Just as technology became something the general population couldn’t ignore over the last generation, the field of social entrepreneurship and its triple bottom line will, too — and today’s social entrepreneurs will be seen as revolutionary geniuses a generation from now.

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