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Anders '14: Why social entrepreneurship matters

The idea and practice of social entrepreneurship are becoming increasingly popular, affecting sectors from finance to farming, including nonprofits, for-profits and everything in between. In early April, Ian Eppler '13 argued that "it is high time for us to retire social entrepreneurship from our lexicon" ("Rethinking social entrepreneurship," April 9). He writes that "social entrepreneurship" is a term without a clear meaning and is therefore useless. My experience with the subject of social entrepreneurship in courses, extracurricular work and interactions with a number of actual social entrepreneurs, however, suggests otherwise. Social entrepreneurship is a rapidly developing field that is advancing sustainable solutions to society's persistent problems. As such, it represents a useful method for addressing problems and is a concept worth studying.

I define social entrepreneurship as the pursuit of innovative, transformative, sustainable and market-driven solutions to social problems. While many social change endeavors possess certain qualities of social entrepreneurship, the two concepts are not identical. Social entrepreneurship is about specific ways of creating social change. This idea is best illustrated through real-world examples.

Consider an organization that wants to supply HIV/AIDS drugs to patients in Africa and the Caribbean. A traditional social service provision model would consist of raising funds, purchasing drugs and distributing the drugs through a clinic. Ten years ago, the Clinton Foundation identified a market failure in this situation - pharmaceutical companies were focusing exclusively on selling high-margin drugs and were failing to realize potential large-scale demand for less expensive drugs. The Clinton Foundation led an effort spearheaded by Ira Magaziner '69 P'06 P'07 P'10 to organize the market. Pharmaceutical companies began producing drugs for the larger-scale, less volatile market provided by governments in Africa and the Caribbean. Economies of scale led to lower drug prices. This solution fundamentally changed the way HIV/AIDS drugs are supplied to poorer markets. 

In Providence alone, there are many examples of "social enterprises," or businesses with a social mission. Amos House, an organization that works to address hunger, homelessness and poverty, contains a business arm called Amos House Works, which includes a catering service, a cafe and a home renovation and repair business. These programs, which are self-sustaining, provide job training and employment opportunities for Amos House's clients. Together, they account for 15 percent of Amos House's annual revenue.

These are just a few examples of social entrepreneurship in action, and I could name countless others. Last semester, I took ENGN 1930Q: "Social Entrepreneurship," a course built around articles, case studies, regular guest speakers - many of whom were Brown alums - and a final project that partnered students with organizations. Outside class, my involvement with A Better World by Design - which explores the use of design and technology for social impact - has exposed me to many more examples of social entrepreneurship. Beyond this, I am friends with a number of students who are social entrepreneurs. Many of them run their own organizations, and many of them are Starr Fellows, who receive support from the Swearer Center for Public Service's initiative for social entrepreneurship. Brown's student body has a thriving culture of social entrepreneurship.

Acknowledge it or not, the field of social entrepreneurship definitely exists. More importantly, the concept and field are changing the way that people think about social action. The rigor of financial analysis and savvy of business acumen are now being applied to social interventions. Furthermore, there is a strong and growing community that seeks to support social entrepreneurs. Ashoka and Acumen Fund are two of many organizations that identify and invest in social entrepreneurs. These institutions aspire to support certain types of solutions to social problems - namely, those that are innovative, transformative and sustainable. In doing so, they set new standards for social impact, affecting the way that traditional nonprofits, social enterprises, for-profit businesses and even governments operate.

The term "social entrepreneurship" may be somewhat unclear and overused, but that does not mean it should be ignored or retired. Rather, as a rapidly developing field with exciting frontiers, it should be explored, challenged, pushed. Social entrepreneurship is creating lasting solutions to social problems in a way that has never been done before, and Brown students can play a key role in advancing this field. Some will lead research in impact measurement and assessment. Others will create new legal frameworks that support mixed financial and social returns on investment. Still others will create change in ways not yet imagined. Brown's culture of creativity, nonconformity and social consciousness means that students here are uniquely well-positioned to contribute to the field of social entrepreneurship - indeed, we already are.

 

Brett Anders '14 tries to help others change the world and is currently in the process of proposing an independent concentration in Social Innovation. 


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