What is an entrepreneur to you? When most of us think of an entrepreneur, we have an image of someone who only wants to start a company, make high profit margins, and get rich. In other words, someone who wants to found the next Apple, Uber, or Google. Our typical image of an entrepreneur seldom includes any thought of social consciousness.

Yet social consciousness is not just for activists and charities anymore. A new generation of social entrepreneurs is growing, a group that has both profit and social responsibility built into their business plan and wants to truly give back and make a difference.

What is a social entrepreneur? 

We’ve become a startup nation, if not a startup world. The creation of small businesses has exploded in the past several years, and in many places, they have become a financial engine, driving the creation of jobs and economic growth.

A startup founder, or entrepreneur, is someone who has an idea and starts a business to make money from that idea. A social entrepreneur takes this model and marries profit with purpose, starting a business to create social value.

Social entrepreneurship, as both a movement and a term, is moving quickly and powerfully into the popular mainstream of our economy and culture. As with anything in its infancy, many are trying to define just what is social entrepreneurship.

A social entrepreneur most often sees a social issue or need, many times from their own personal experience, and starts a business to act in addressing that need. They show the world that when a business understands social value creation, it can both earn a profit and lead help drive solutions to local or even global problems.

A company formed by a social entrepreneur is most often not a charity, but rather a for-profit business with a strong focus on giving back. However, within this concept, there can be various types of social entrepreneur.

Some businesses founded by social entrepreneurs don’t follow a typical organizational structure. For example, they may be staffed and run by a team of unpaid volunteers and funded by the local community or even through donations received from around the country or even the world. These funds are typically used to sustain operating costs and develop programs that support the company’s mission.

Isn’t that corporate social responsibility?

It would be natural to assume that social entrepreneurship is just corporate social responsibility (CSR). In general, CSR is the concept of the moral and ethical obligations of a company concerning its employees, the environment, their competitors, the local and global economy, and other areas affected by the company’s business. CSR is often characterized as a way for companies to “give back.”

Many companies practice some form of CSR to varying degrees. However, CSR is sometimes criticized as merely a side concern, a way for companies to improve their public image rather than being embraced as genuine, intrinsic altruism.

A company formed by a social entrepreneur is different from a company that practices traditional CSR. A social entrepreneur founds their business with its primary goal being not only to “give back,” but to sustainably improve social issues. The focus on this goal is so strong that it is often present from the company’s inception, baked into the DNA of the company’s principles and operation.

Examples of social entrepreneurship

So what does social entrepreneurship look like? Here are some of the more well-known examples:

OVO Vodka

OVO Vodka is a social entrepreneurship company that helps cleans the oceans

Founded by two social entrepreneurs, OVO Vodka produces “vodka for a cause.” Its ultra-premium, gluten-free vodka is sold with the intent to empower its customers to help remove harmful plastics and cleanse the earth’s five oceans “one drink at a time.”

In fact, the company’s name is short for Our Five (V) Oceans, which is a great example of social entrepreneurship built into a company’s core. OVO Vodka also works toward enacting new industry standards and ending damaging environmental cycles.

Good Eggs

Good Eggs benefiting society

Good Eggs is an online grocery and meal delivery company. Its means of social entrepreneurship is to provide customers with fresh, sustainable foods and meals kits made from produce raised by local farmers. Goods Eggs believes that better foods can lead to a better world and to drive this, their mission is to source over 70% of their food, wine, and spirits locally. All their products must meet strict social and environmental sourcing standards. 

Ben & Jerry’s 

Ben & Jerry's social entrepreneurship values

One of the most well-known examples of a business founded by a social entrepreneur, in this case, two of them, is Ben & Jerry’s. While known for its ice cream, Ben & Jerry’s also has a long history of using its profits to contribute to improving the social good.

Ben & Jerry’s mission is to generate prosperity for all who are connected to their business. This includes not only customers, but employees, suppliers, farmers, franchisees, and neighbors. Ben & Jerry’s also supports several social justice causes. Simply stated, “We use ice cream to change the world.”

Warby Parker

Warby Parker giving back with buy a pair, give a pair

Social entrepreneurship was built into the founding of the eyeglasses company Warby Parker. In this is the mandate that for every pair of eyeglasses it sold, a pair is donated to someone in need.

This business model has been so successful, it has not only changed the eyewear industry but has also resulted in many copycat competitors, both of which provide a great example of sustainable social change for the good. 

TOMS Shoes

TOMS social entrepreneurship

TOMS can legitimately be presented as the company that brought social entrepreneurship into the mainstream consciousness in 2006. Founded on the model of buying one pair of shoes and giving another to a child in need, TOMS also uses environmentally responsible materials in its products. This model has evolved and today, if you buy a pair of shoes or sunglasses, TOMS will provide shoes, vision, water, safe birth, and bullying prevention to those in need around the world.

Lush Cosmetics 

Lush cosmetics social entrepreneurs

Lush is a cosmetics company whose products have a rather unique feature: nakedness, meaning they are free from packaging. Eliminating packaging helps in environmental sustainability, one of Lush’s social entrepreneurship founding principles in which it donates millions of dollars. Lush also supports ethical consumerism as well as making the world better for “people, animals, and the environment.”

What makes a social entrepreneur? 

There are many types of businesses and goals that can define a social entrepreneur. Often the most successful of these are businesses founded on the commitment to make a positive social impact, stand out as unique from the crowd, and leverage these characteristics to influence consumer behavior in a socially and financially positive way. 

A social entrepreneur who creates a company based on a double set of goals, such as social and financial, often has a competitive advantage. A company founded on a triple set of goals, such as social, environmental, and financial can distance itself even further from the pack.

Useful skills for entrepreneurs 

Many people assume that succeeding as a traditional or social entrepreneur requires some combination of innate ability and years of hustle. While these factors do play a big part, there are some learned skills that can be applied in all types of entrepreneurship. Here’s a summary of a few of them.

  1. Strategic thinking involves analyzing data, opinions, and hypotheses to develop a framework for your company’s direction.
  1. Finance and accounting allow an entrepreneur to understand a balance sheet and use it to manage a company’s finances.
  1. Leadership is a key entrepreneur skill. A leader steers their company through ups and downs, creates strategies, and ensures employees are all working toward the company’s overall mission.
  1. Marketing establishes a company’s brand and helps it know and understand its customers, which leads to generating interest in the company’s products and ultimately to earning revenue.

You can learn and improve these and more important entrepreneurial skills by taking online courses in entrepreneurship.