Can you be a social entrepreneur but not the boss?

August 10 2012: What is the difference between a peace entrepreneur and a person who has devoted their career to building and advocating for peace. Is there a difference?

Muhammad Yunus, perhaps the world’s most famous social entrepreneur, from Bangladesh. Photo published under a Creative Commons licence.

We’ve been ruminating lately on something that may ruffle a few feathers. It’s about the definition of social entrepreneur. Traditionally, an entrepreneur (the “mainstream” species) is a person who runs an enterprise or a venture. She is an ambitious leader, likely the founder, who is held accountable for the risks and outcomes of the operation. She is the face, the talking head, the company personified.

Did you notice anything in the description above? Other than the fact that we chose to use she instead of he, what’s interesting is that we think of an entrepreneur as the proverbial “King – or Queen – of the Mountain.” Go it alone. Winner takes all.

Somehow, it seems strange to apply this logic to social entrepreneurs and social enterprises. From what we see, social enterprise, as a sector, is unique: its focus is on the change that an enterprise creates. How a community is transformed. How the environment benefits. You get the drift.

Of course, social entrepreneurs are part of the cult of respect. Some would argue that only certain kinds of (often unreasonable) people are capable of being successful social entrepreneurs. They are driven, passionate, and possess a “don’t quit” attitude. (Harvard, at their Entrepreneurial Finance Lab, is even pioneering the use of psychometric testing to measure people’s natural predisposition to entrepreneurship. Results pending — look for more information in a future issue of Beyond Profit).

We agree, social entrepreneurs are unique. And amazing. But, what about the crew that supports the enterprise, and augments the work of the entrepreneur? If we are not all born with the “right” combination of enterprising traits, should we throw in the towel? More importantly, where do the employees of a social enterprise fit on the scale of entrepreneurial abilities?

From our experience at Beyond Profit, we know that employees of a social enterprise feel a strong sense of ownership over their enterprise, of their enterprise’s mission, of their work. Often, since many social enterprises are in start-up phase, all team members are forced to be entrepreneurial in both their thinking and in their actions. So then, don’t we all have the capability to be socially entrepreneurial? Can we call ourselves social entrepreneurs even if we aren’t the president/founder/supreme leader? Why do we need to draw a line in the sand?

We would love to hear your thoughts!

This post was originally published on the Ashoka Peace Blog.

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September 2012 | Insight on Conflict on September 3, 2012

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