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Eppler '13: Rethinking social entrepreneurship

If there were a list of things Brown students say, "social entrepreneurship" would be up there with "hegemony" and "spicy with." Social entrepreneurship has attracted a great deal of institutional attention. Countless extracurricular programs, fellowships, courses, conferences and other initiatives focus on the topic. But what does "social entrepreneurship" even mean? Brown and its students have embraced social entrepreneurship wholeheartedly, but should they?

A valuable first step to understanding "social entrepreneurship" is to look to its practitioners' self-definition. The Skoll Foundation, a large philanthropic supporter of social entrepreneurship initiatives, defines "social entrepreneurs" as "society's change agents: creators of innovations that disrupt the status quo and transform our world for the better." This definition is so over-inclusive that it's meaningless. Steve Jobs fits this description, but the Skoll Foundation's list of grantees suggests that the founder of an electronics company would not be considered a social entrepreneur. Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. fits the description as well, but the Skoll Foundation's list of grantees also suggests that an advocate, organizer, writer and orator such as King would not be considered a social entrepreneur. We must look elsewhere for a satisfactory definition.

Academia also fails to provide a satisfactory definition of social entrepreneurship. In a widely cited 2007 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto's business school, and Sally Osberg, chief executive officer of the Skoll Foundation, attempted to define social entrepreneurship for an academic audience. They base their definition on economist Joseph Schumpeter's definition of entrepreneurship, arguing that a social entrepreneur identifies an unjust social equilibrium, identifies a means of changing it and implements the change, forming a new social equilibrium. Though this definition is more specific than the Skoll Foundation's, it still bears little meaning. King, a "conventional" social change advocate, would fit under this definition, just as he would fit under the Skoll Foundation's. Definitions of "social entrepreneurship" fail to indicate how the term differs from past social change advocacy.

Given that the term "social entrepreneurship" denotes almost no meaning, why would anyone use it? If social entrepreneurship does not differ from other forms of social change advocacy, why do we care about it? I posit that the answer lies with its connotations, specifically those of the "entrepreneurship" component. The popular understanding of "entrepreneur" is "someone who has interesting ideas and makes a great deal of money from them." Our society prizes the traditional form of entrepreneurship and respects its practitioners in a way that our society doesn't necessarily support advocates of social change. In using the term "social entrepreneurship," those who use it attempt to de-emphasize the "social" component in favor of the more accepted "entrepreneurship" component, signaling that they share mainstream values. While this respect may be important to participants, the benefits also extend beyond intangible respect, however.

People who are capable of providing tangible benefits are also the targets of the "social entrepreneurship" signaling phenomenon. "Social entrepreneurship" signals to parents, employers, admissions committees and other responsible adults that, although one may be interested in social change, one is solidly part of the mainstream. A social entrepreneur is not one of those scary people who does things like camping out in parks. Calling oneself a "social entrepreneur" signals that one shares the values and norms of people who supposedly matter, helping one receive the tangible benefits they offer. "Social entrepreneurship" allows for social change advocacy without the potential external consequences that come with being an activist.

There's nothing wrong with projecting an image for the sake of external validation. Given that most of the people reading this column have been accepted by Brown, it's fair to say that we're quite good at doing so. But we should be honest about what we're doing and why we're doing it. There's a lot of good that can be done under the guise of "social entrepreneurship," but that doesn't excuse our collective failure to recognize and acknowledge its purposes and its limitations.

Honesty about the purposes and limitations of "social entrepreneurship" would begin with rejection of the term itself. It is the epitome of a buzzword - a term that means something slightly different to everyone and ultimately nothing to anyone, facilitating obfuscation and equivocation. As members of an intellectual community, we should prize clear thinking, writing and expression. Social entrepreneurship is incompatible with these values. It is high time for us to retire social entrepreneurship from our lexicon.


Ian Eppler '13 is a social entrepreneur, and so can you! He may be contacted at



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