The term, “social entrepreneurship” comes up almost every day as I travel through Southeast Asia. People interpret this term differently, which makes sense given that the buzzword combines two complex ideas; society/social causes and entrepreneurship. As someone who wants to become a social entrepreneur, I want to break down the meaning of this term and what I have gained by looking at it through a cross-cultural lense.
I personally define social entrepreneurship as a mindset, rather than a component of a business entity. I believe that all social enterprises must start as social enterprises. This mindset cannot be an afterthought, rather the foundational aspect of any successful social enterprise.
During my senior year of high school, I was the CEO of a social enterprise, called “Clarity.” My peers and I started the business to bring awareness to teenage suicide within our school district. Our mission was to decrease factors in our school and district that played a role in teen suicide by promoting positive future-seeking visions in every student. We achieved this by selling unique water bottles and stickers that acted as conversations starters within our school. From my own personal experience of having friends and family members suffer from suicidal thoughts, I feel strongly about the issue and I wanted to make a change, even if it was on a small scale within in my high school. The name “Clarity” was inspired by the lack of clarity that many teenagers face in their lives, and that they struggle to find. Our slogan “See Your Future” encouraged students to look past these clouding visions and see their own unique futures.
Our enterprise was successful, both socially and fiscally. We nearly quadrupled our initial investment, which we then donated to a local mental health center and our high school’s business department. We also had better results from students, regarding mental health and conversations about suicide, in our post-business survey. We only attained success because we were passionate about our mission, and we were involved primarily for the social outcome. We succeeded because of our entrepreneurial spirit and passion for achieving our mission.
I recently interviewed Max Simpson, a social entrepreneur and SEN (special educational needs) teacher who co-founded “Steps with Theera.” This restaurant/café is located in Bangkok, Thailand and is on a mission to create a place where everyone is accepted for who they are, which they attain by supporting special-needs people through sustainable employment and other measures. Max didn’t move to Bangkok in search of business opportunities nor did she have any idea that she’d ever become an entrepreneur. She was an SEN teacher in Bangkok for 4 years until she discovered the lack of social and educational support for adults with SEN. She then decided to leave her job as a teacher and collaborated with her co-founder, Theera, to build the social enterprise they have today.
Max defines the term “social enterprise” as, “Helping a social cause whilst developing sustainable business opportunities – which in turn creates wider awareness and acceptance.” Max’s answer varies from my own personal definition of social entrepreneurship, and probably varies from your very own definition. But that’s okay. What I’ve learned while traveling in Southeast Asia, and working with many social enterprises, is that we all define this term differently.
Despite the disparity amongst definitions, there is a common theme amongst the international definitions of social entrepreneurship. And I believe that it is finding the symbiotic relationship between one’s chosen social cause and their means of entrepreneurship. It’s all in the balance between the two, which can vary from business to business. Social enterprises that you’ve most likely heard of such as Seventh Generation, Newman’s Own, and even Teach for America, all have different missions and their own unique ways of defining “social entrepreneurship” for themselves, but they all have mastered the balance between their social and fiscal goals.
All successful social enterprises, corporate or small-scale, have an unbreakable passion for their chosen social cause and a foundational mindset of what social entrepreneurship means to them. Throughout this trimester I have learned more about what social entrepreneurship means to me personally and to others that I’ve met in different countries. And after what I’ve seen in, I know that the entrepreneurial spirit is something that no one can take away from me, or anyone else who has it.
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