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November 30, 2009

I’ve always liked the word “intrepid”—a great name for a sailboat (dates me, I know) and apropos for folks the Skoll Foundation has been seeking out and backing for just under a decade, otherwise known as “social entrepreneurs.” So it’s in that spirit that I’ll step into the fray and try to slay some myths about those front-line drivers of social change.
Let me begin by acknowledging that despite its currency—in the media, academe, the social sector, and even policy circles—the term “social entrepreneur” remains contested. To some, it’s all hype and no substance (see Michael Edwards), a descriptor promulgated by Silicon Valley “philanthrocapitalists” who take issue with “traditional” philanthropy and civil society models in general; to others, especially AshokaDraper RichardsEchoing Greenthe Schwab Foundation, and the Skoll Foundation, it characterizes a distinct set of players whose purpose is to create lasting societal value.
First and foremost, social entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship, which as both concept and practice has been around for hundreds of years. As early as the sixteenth century, the term was in play, used to describe someone who undertakes a business venture. By the eighteenth century, economist Richard Cantillon fleshed out the concept with the notion of risk—establishing as distinctive the entrepreneur’s assumption of  the risk required to bring a new idea or innovation to the marketplace.
Just as entrepreneurs play a distinct role in business, so social entrepreneurs play a distinct role in society. Like entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs are game changers—pioneers of innovations designed to solve social and environmental problems. Social entrepreneurs are out to change the status quo—what Rotman School of Management Dean Roger Martin and I have framed as societal equilibria that reinforce human suffering, marginalization, and oppression, those forces that hold people back from realizing decent lives and their human potential.
Social entrepreneurs see opportunities where others see intractable problems. Fueled by the power of their visions, they assume the risk of building ventures, generally in the form of organizations—profit, not-for-profit, and hybrid—to drive their innovations forward, to bring their visions for change to fruition.
In their ways of working and their zeal to effect equilibrium change, social entrepreneurs are different from social service providers and social activists (see Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition). Social service providers and social entrepreneurs both engage in direct action; the first provides needed goods and services to a constituency—the classic serving of “fish” to the hungry—while the latter drives an innovation designed to solve the problem of hunger altogether. Social activists, in contrast to social service providers and social entrepreneurs, focus their efforts indirectly, on those whom they believe have the power to shift the status quo, generally policymakers; like social entrepreneurs, they are after transformational change.
Please note: my aim here is not invidious comparison. Communities and societies benefit from the efforts of all three actors. Hungry children can’t wait for systemic solutions, and many social innovations require policy overhauls. But without the social entrepreneur’s efforts to transform systems, the conditions leading to social inequities will persist.

Sally Osberg