The Real Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship and How To Promote It In Your Classroom

April 3rd, 2013 No Comments Features

social entrepreneurship

“Social entrepreneurs don’t just pursue a social end, they pursue that end in a fundamentally communal way.” –Sally Osberg, Skoll Foundation

In a not-so-distant past, college degrees were the safety nets that led to job security. Now those nets are riddled with holes, sagged down by the weight of so many recipients. And unless young professionals have something new to offer, awarding them some leverage back into the net, they slip between the seams into the greatest hole of all: unemployment.

Because of this new development, the term “entrepreneur” has moved beyond the walls of the business school and into many secondary classrooms across the world. It now has a much broader definition, welcoming anyone— in any field— who plants a seed of change and directs its growth. The definition includes serial entrepreneurs, lifestyle entrepreneurs, family entrepreneurs, creative entrepreneurs, extreme entrepreneurs, non-profit entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and others.

Regardless of which path our students take, it is the entrepreneurial values of ownership, innovation, and sustainment that we should be cultivating in them from an early age. This way, our students will be prepared to hold onto that net when it starts to sag.

In his 2012 article for TIME, Steve Mariotti (founder of the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship , which provides programs that inspire young people from low-income communities to stay in school, recognize business opportunities, and plan for successful futures) writes, “As an educator of at-risk youth for over thirty years, and NFTE’s founder, I’ve seen only one thing consistently bring children raised in poverty into the middle class: entrepreneurship education.”

Over the past several years, educators have taken off running with the idea of teaching entrepreneurial values to youth.

At a Middle School in Cheshire, Connecticut, eighth grade students are planning and managing their own “businesses” through a project called Mind Your Own Business (MYOB), selling food and crafts to the school’s faculty and study body.

In Kansas, the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) provides students with a specialized, entrepreneurial alternative to traditional high school. Here, young innovators can develop and test their ideas, receive support from business and engineering experts, meet venture capitalists and investors, and apply for provisional patents in order to commercialize their products.

“Owner-entrepreneurship education empowers young people to make well-informed decisions about their future, whether they choose to become entrepreneurs or not,” Mariotti says. “Our students discover that, like every individual, they already own five powerful assets: time, talent, attitude, energy and unique knowledge of one’s local market.”

It makes sense. In a world economy where jobs have become scarce and degrees insufficient, entrepreneurship offers a promising alternative: If you can’t find a job, why not create one?

The Rise Of The Social Entrepreneur

Social entrepreneurship, in particular, has risen to the occasion as an appealing alternative. As our governments and markets fail to provide solutions to social problems, a new legion of self-appointed individuals all across the world swells in influence and number.

Bornsetin writes, “There have always been people who build organizations that demonstrate new possibilities and spark change. In business, they were given the name “entrepreneurs” some 200 years ago. In the social sector, until recently, we called their counterparts — people like Dorothea Dix, Gifford Pinchot or Asa Philip Randolph — humanitarians or revolutionaries. It’s only in the past 30 years — and primarily in the past 10 — as the number of social entrepreneurs has multiplied, that we’ve come to appreciate their role in social change — and begun to study their methods.”

There is now a host of post-secondary and graduate programs— such as the Australian Graduate School of Entrepreneurship (AGSE) the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE) first launched in the UK, and Ashoka U in the US— that provide the resources and guidance young professionals need to travel this path. Activity can also be seen at the elementary and secondary levels, as middle and high school teachers begin implementing lessons on social entrepreneurship in their classrooms.

In 2010, members of the Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) in Greater Los Angeles commenced a year-long pilot program in an underfunded LA school to teach the fundamentals of business, entrepreneurship, and giving back to the community— all through the lens of a social entrepreneur.

Each student was challenged to create a marketing campaign with a “pop-up” retail store in their high school, where they were given $20, taken to a local wholesale market, and told to negotiate and create retail products to sell at lunch. The catch: every “pop-up” store had to have a cause attached to it. The NFTE also teamed up with to provide the most innovative students with a real-life business launch kit that included free entity incorporation, websites, logos, accounting software, business guide books, and more.

The Grand Prize winner, sophomore Hayley Hoverter, created eco-friendly, dissolvable rice-paper sugar packets that can be dispensed from a bamboo container on a coffee shop counter, preventing businesses from tearing through nearly 1,000 paper packets a day.

The Problem

This is all fine and good, but one detail seems to have gone awry: In defining social entrepreneurship, aren’t we neglecting community?

The term “entrepreneur” connotes a sole effort, however wide the sweep of its impact. Even when preceded by “social,” the term points not to the method involved but to the cause for which the method is enacted. A social entrepreneur tries to change the world, and almost certainly connects and works with others along the way, but is typically portrayed as a one-man team.

David Bornstein hits the nail on the head in his New York Times column from last November: (quoting Sally Osberg, president and chief executive of the Skoll Foundation) “For a long time, Osberg said, she viewed social entrepreneurs as ‘individual actors’ whose ideas led to the ‘creative destruction’ necessary to ‘replace a societal status quo’ with systems that were more just. ‘But over recent years,’ she added, ‘I’ve come to see how the “social” that characterizes their purpose also characterizes their way of working. In other words, social entrepreneurs don’t just pursue a social end, they pursue that end in a fundamentally communal way.’”

This concept – defining “social entrepreneurship” by its method as well as its purpose—is not new. It has simply been masquerading under different names, namely “system building,” “network weaving,” “infrapreneurship,” and “intrapreneurship.” But it has not been featured as an important aspect of the term we use in our classrooms.

In a recent blog post on, an Ashoka contributor blamed the higher education crisis in the United States on untapped social potential: “The problem isn’t that higher education doesn’t have anything of value to offer (colleges are nothing if not mountains of world-class learning opportunities), but that students aren’t getting any of that value. “ The community is intimate, the resources are plentiful, the network is waiting to be built— but students have not been properly advised on how to proceed.

A Social Means To a Social End

Frustrated with this oversight of traditional higher learning, Weezie Yancey-Siegel, now a social impact program manager for Flavorpill, decided to take matters into her own hands. After spending two years (and a pretty penny) at a prestigious liberal arts college in California, she took a year off of school to travel around the United States and Europe, attending conferences and interviewing other social innovators.

One of her interviewees, Rithesh Menon, is the Director of Partnerships for StartingBloc, a network and training program for young leaders. StartingBloc is a community of people who are brought together by a common trait: they are all wanting to change or impact the world in some way. For some people this may mean that they have an idea for a social venture that they are willing to build and lead.

Menon says he isn’t a big fan of the term “social entrepreneur.” There are many other roles that are needing to be filled in order to leverage true change, he says.

Weezie first began thinking about these roles in October 2011 when she met with Cassie Robinson of the co-working space Hub Westminister. Cassie is a perfect example of someone who is deeply committed to the system as a whole rather than just one project. As she puts it, “I’m interested in system builders as opposed to entrepreneurs.’”

Cassie works on several different projects, and is able to bring various perspectives and opinions to them. Cassie and Weezie talked about how much their society celebrates the entrepreneur, when it really needs to be looking at these system changer roles as well.

As Cassie explained, “I can never apply to any programs for personal development, or support, or funding. You can apply if you’re a social entrepreneur.”

She gave Weezie an example of something called The Big Venture Challenge, which awards 25 of the top entrepreneurs in the country. “I phoned them up because I just wanted to challenge them a little bit. In the application you had to say how you would go into an area in the UK and how you would basically help low-income people out of poverty. My argument to them was, ‘Why are you looking for a lone entrepreneur with one idea to be able to do that? There’s no way one organization or entrepreneur will be able to do that. There’s different aspects of a social problem like poverty and it would require a system for people. Why don’t you invest in people who know who those ten organizations would be and who could hold that together?'”

On May 8, 2012, Weezie posted the following on her blog, :

“Funders and investors need to recognize, reward, and incentivize these critical roles to enable more people to take them on as jobs in the realm of social development. On the other hand, there is also a need for those who work within an organization or business that already exists and who innovate from within. I’m all in for creating new structures and recombinations. But the fact is, there are so many existing things that can benefit from fresh insight and begin to evolve to become something more adapted for the present and future. We call these people intrapreneurs, and like system builders, I feel that there is not enough emphasis or even education on these roles and their importance. Let’s ensure that the evolving educational systems will be mindful of these gaps that need to be filled.”

How You Can Redefine Social Entrepreneurship

Amid the anarchical din of MOOCs and anti-college movements, there is one lasting ray of hope for traditional schooling, and that is social entrepreneurship.

For a moment, forget the Common Core Standards and assessment tests, the push for college preparation and career success. Forget the emphasis on the individual student, whom, to the student’s own dismay, we have forced into premature self-awareness.

For a moment, imagine a learning space where students are first and foremost encouraged to work with and depend on one another for success.

With a little guidance, students will be prepared to take full advantage of the community-building resources that a college campus has to offer, and will carry this skill with them into the real world.

Here are five steps you can take to promote system building in your own classroom:

  1. Instill a sense of inter-dependence in your students. Create a social activity, such as building a mock-organization that provides clean drinking water to underdeveloped countries, and let them research, identify, and “fill” various roles needed to design and execute each project.
  2. Encourage design thinking. The three pillars of design thinking are human desirability, technical feasibility, and business viability. Although these seem like advanced concepts that belong in a business school lecture, you can introduce the same basic habits of thought to students in a sixth grade class. Break students up into groups and hold a “design your own robot” day, where groups are further divided into three “panels” for Who Does It Help, How Does it Work, and What Does it Cost.
  3. Require students to lead workshops rather than give presentations. This way, students can ask and respond to questions, exercise leadership and discussion skills, present ideas in a more collaborative (and less judgmental) setting, and make their peers feel involved and socially responsible.
  4. Emphasize the importance of organizational and collaborative skills in areas like human resource management, business/nonprofit law, marketing, and fundraising. Turn your classroom into a business model by breaking students up into “departments” that work together to improve the functionality and efficiency of the group overall.
  5. Expose students to organizations and resources that encourage social entrepreneurship through collaboration: Skillshare, School of Everything, Ashoka U, Breaker, Skoll Foundation, Echoing Green, Social Spaces, Trade School, the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and ThinkImpact, just to name a few. Many of these organizations hold internships, apprenticeships, and competitions throughout the year.

To ensure that our students take full advantage of the incredible value educational institutions have to offer, help them first understand the value of community.

For a great resource on teaching social entrepreneurship to students, check out Ashoka U’s “Social Entrepreneurship Education Resource Handbook.” Originally designed for faculty members interested in teaching social entrepreneurship, the Handbook was revised to include uses and applications for administrators eager to advance social entrepreneurship at their colleges and universities, students interested in launching their own social ventures and plugging into relevant resources, and practitioners of social entrepreneurship with an interest in higher education programs.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

Leave a Reply