The term ‘social entrepreneurship’ is increasingly common, although it was virtually unheard of 20 years ago. As an academic, I was one of those that wrote articles and spoke at conferences on the subject. Because there was (and is) little agreement on the definition of the term, I even coined one of the definitions (borrowing heavily from the work of Howard Stevenson): “The pursuit of an opportunity to benefit society beyond the tangible resources currently controlled.” Fast forward to a different time and a different place, I wonder now more than ever if the term is as useful as many of us once thought…
Usefulness over Time
Years ago, I commented that social entrepreneurship, as a concept, is too important and bold to be merely a subset of conventional entrepreneurship or business. My concern then was that the more we did to develop a field that represented a marginal ideal, the more we may prevent the value of the concept from being adopted as part of the mainstream ideology of business. As with the term Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), as soon as every organization makes the tenants of social responsibility part of their core values and explicit statements, the term losses its value as a differentiator, and it no longer makes sense to demarcate some companies as ‘Socially Responsible Businesses’. Clearly, society benefits more when CSR or social entrepreneurship become part of the assumptions, values and language of the mainstream business paradigm rather than remaining an idealistic notion subscribed to by a few within the larger paradigm.
Usefulness from this Place
Working in Rwanda, it is even less clear that social entrepreneurship is a useful term. In recent weeks, we have asked four CEO’s what had been the driving motivation to found their respective organizations. One said he did it to create jobs for those who had been poaching and killing Mountain Gorillas. Another said he did so because President Kagame asked him to alleviate poverty in the region he was born. Another established his company to improve the technological, social and economic status of his country after the war. The last CEO said his organization was established by the Rwandan Army because the army was expected to dedicate a portion of its resources to improving the development of Rwandans. It seems to me the term ‘social entrepreneur’ is more useful in the West, where identification of some in business that pursue merely selfish ambitions seems plausible. If such a person exists here in Rwanda, I’m not certain I have met them yet…
Onward and Upward,