Putting entrepreneurs on a pedestal holds back the advancement of social entrepreneurism as a field

Fast Company recently published an article asking if the term “entrepreneur” has “got too popular for its own good”. The answer, suffice to say, was a resounding “yes”.

I’d argue that much of the same logic could be applied to social entrepreneurs. Having spent most of my career working at or advising social enterprises, I don’t doubt that social entrepreneurship, done right, can be a powerful force for good. Those who overcome the challenges of founding such organizations earn their plaudits. That being said, an excessive application of the term does more harm than good and distracts from the work that still needs to be done to advance the sector.

#1: The myth of the solitary genius

The first consequence too much hype is that it contributes to the myth that establishing a social enterprise is the work of a single dedicated and inspired individual. Think of Newton, the theory of gravity, and the proverbial apple: one person, toiling alone, reaching a singular moment of enlightening clarity.

There may very well be such solitary geniuses, but they are hardly the norm. Every enterprise I have worked with has evolved over years and been successful as the result not of one but of many bright and committed people, all of whom contributed significantly to the organization’s evolution. Giving all the credit to one person misleads those trying to build their own enterprises and discourages others who wait for an enlightening “apple falling on head” moment that never comes. Unfortunately, many of the fields’ leading supporters, such as the Skoll or Schwab Foundations, continue to perpetuate this myth by awarding their flagship prizes not to an enterprise, but to a single entrepreneur.

#2: Blurred lines

Another result of so many people jumping on the social enterprise bandwagon is an increasingly blurred definition of what a social enterprise actually is. This leads not only to profoundly impenetrable and conflicting terminology (I once heard a factory owner insist that he ran a social enterprise because of the number of people he employed), but also to difficulty in monitoring the development and achievements of the field. As Fast Company author Ainsley O’Connell put it, “by turning ‘entrepreneur’ into an aspirational catchall…we’ve lost our ability to measure and understand the macro shifts taking place–and their policy implications.” Many social enterprises might be better termed re-branded NGOs or businesses with some minimal claim to social impact, clouding analysis. What is the success rate of all social enterprises? What are the characteristics of successful scale-up strategies, or strong social enterprise ecosystems? At the moment, it’s hard to tell.

#3: Innovation or impact?

Finally, an unhappy corollary of overstating the role of the social entrepreneur is understating the role of other change makers, notably, those increasingly referred to as “social intrapreneurs”. As I’ve written before, social intrapreneurship may very well take the highly-contested award for the most jargony term in business and development; however, that doesn’t make the concept any less important. Existing “mainstream” businesses, many of which represent global economies in their own right, are arguably more important for maximizing social and environmental gains than what are quite often small, niche social enterprises. The novelty, or even the innovation, of social enterprise, should take second place to achieving social impact at scale.

Fortunately, the role of intrapreneurs is increasingly recognized; for instance, Accenture, Business Fights Poverty, and Oxford’s Skoll Centre are hosting “intrapreneurship labs” in the coming months.

Implications:

Social enterprise and inclusive business are increasingly popular, not least because millennials are entering the field at an unprecedented pace. The more established social entrepreneurism becomes, the more important it is for the sector to be accurately mapped and business models fully assessed. To grow, the field’s reputation needs to be based on reality, not on myth. At its best, social entrepreneurism can be truly inspiring- it doesn’t need the hype.

Interested in social enterprise? Check out “Demystifying social enterprise and inclusive business” and “Is big business appropriating social enterprise?”

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