What It Takes to Be a Social Entrepreneur?

As I prepare for the start of 2016, I am thinking about ways to expand my reach to do more social good. I must admit the buzz around the title social entrepreneur immediately makes me think I need a board of directors, bigger budgets and big goals — three key elements that are missing from many startup companies. Am I ready?

“Social entrepreneurs are people who look at society and see the big problems and see innovative solutions that are permanent and can change the fabric of society,” says Dr. Lyndon Haviland, interim CEO for Darkness to Light, a non-profit organization tasked with preventing the sexual abuse of children.

Haviland, a passionate advocate for social justice and global women’s and children’s health issues, says that “every business person can take on a social mission. Social entrepreneurs often start small but then build traction because they are unafraid to reach out to others to help them do their work.”

Professor Harry Kraemer at the Kellogg School of Management, author of Becoming the Best: Build a World-Class Organization Through Values-Based Leadership, tells me that being a social entrepreneur has very little to do with how much money you have or the number of people who report to you.

“In social entrepreneurship, values-based leadership is essential,” he says. “In particular, the two principles of self-reflection and genuine humility are especially important.”

To learn more about being a value-based leader, I had Kraemer define three principles of value-based leadership:

1. The importance of self-reflection.

Self-reflection allows you to look at your purpose and your motivation. Are you interested in becoming a social entrepreneur because you feel passionate about a certain issue or problem (such as alleviating poverty, addressing illiteracy, access to healthcare, etc.)? Do you believe that, because of certain gifts, attributes, experiences or resources, that you are uniquely positioned to help identify or deliver a solution? Or is it about you — the desire to be recognized and admired, gain influence, etc.?

Continuous self-reflection keeps you aware of and aligned with your purpose and motivation. If you get off track, self-reflection can bring you back by reconnecting with purpose and the motivation to help others.

2. You are not watching the movie — you are in the movie.

Through self-reflection, you continually remind yourself that a certain problem or solution is not the responsibility of “those guys” — those other people you deem to be the ones responsible (or better positioned) for addressing problems and devising solutions. You recognize that you are one of “those guys” (a gender-neutral term, by the way).

You’re not watching the movie — you’re in the movie. There is not a group of people who will deal with this. You are going to do something about it.

3. Genuine humility creates partnership.

Genuine humility plays a big role to keep you in partnership with the people, organizations and communities that you’re trying to help. You may be blessed with intellect, a great education and important experiences. But genuine humility reminds you that you do not have all the answers. You realize that you can learn something from every person with whom you interact.

A wonderful example of genuine humility in action is One Acre Fund, which was co-founded by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management graduate Andrew Youn. One Acre Fund is dedicated to changing the lives of families in Africa (Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and other countries) by providing access to seed, fertilizer, financing and training in agricultural techniques. One Acre Fund describes this as putting “farmers first.”


One Acre gives $80 loans to families for seeds and fertilizers. Youn works with and trains families to double or triple their annual crop yield. So instead of starving, the families have enough to eat and enough extra to buy clothing and send their children to school.

Today, Youn and the people he has worked with have doubled or tripled the annual crop yield on more than 250,000 farms in nine years, which has impacted more than 1.3 million children. One Acre’s goal is to serve 1 million farm families — 5 million people — by 2020.

Haviland explains that the motivation to be a social entrepreneur is very different than a typical entrepreneur. She reminded me that “the traditional entrepreneur is not always motivated by social justice. While social entrepreneurs want to do well by doing good they are motivated by wanting to make a difference and leaving the world a better place.”

Written by: Deborah Mitchell

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