What is Social Entrepreneurship?

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

Social entrepreneurship is steadily gaining popularity as, by creating and sustaining social value, involves pattern-breaking innovation that focuses on people rather than profit—features that are often favored by the Millennial generation. However, there is no consensus on the definition of social entrepreneurship—indeed, the lack of a common definition hinders research and raises questions about which social or profit-making activities fall within its spectrum. For example, social entrepreneurship is based on different models: for-profit, non-profit, or hybrid models. Hybrid models link profit to social mission, and underscore the triple bottom line, which consists of three Ps: profit, people and planet.


Perhaps, it is easier to define the aim of social entrepreneurship. “The aim is to benefit a specific group of people, permanently transforming their lives by altering a prevailing socioeconomic equilibrium that works to their disadvantage. Sometimes, as with environmental entrepreneurship, the benefit may be extended to a broader group once the project has provided proof of concept. But more often the benefit’s target is an economically disadvantaged or marginalized segment of society that doesn’t have the means to transform its social or economic prospects without help.”

So, how can we define social entrepreneurs? “The social entrepreneur is a mission-driven individual who uses a set of entrepreneurial behaviours to deliver a social value to the less privileged, all through an entrepreneurially oriented entity that is financially independent, self-sufficient, or sustainable.”

This year’s Forbes 30 Social Entrepreneurs Under 30 (2016) features 42 young entrepreneurs, including a few co-founder pairs and teams. They combine different skills—in technology, engineering, science and business—for social purposes, such as feeding the planet, provide help to find quality jobs, or improving health.

Here is an example: Gavin Armstrong’s Lucky Iron Fish protects people from developing iron deficiency, which affects nearly 3.5 billion people worldwide. Iron deficiency is a preventable condition that, if untreated, leads to anemia, weakness, impaired cognitive ability, compromised physical development in children, and increased risk of illness. Lucky Iron Fish makes pieces of iron in the shape of fish. When cooked in boiling water, the fish—which can provide an entire family with up to 90% of their daily iron intake for up to 5 years—releases iron.

Lucky Iron Fish defines itself as a business with a social purpose. In addition, Lucky Iron Fish is a certified B Corporation. B corporations (B Corps) are for-profit companies that use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems—in other words, they use the power of business as a force for good. Businesses focused on social good have been around for decades. However, the concept took off in 2012, as new laws in several states allowed mission-based companies to reincorporate as benefit corporations, while protecting themselves from shareholders who might not prioritize values such as employee wellness or eco-friendliness.

B corps now consists of a growing community of more than 1,400 Certified B Corps from 42 countries and over 120 industries, are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. They work together toward 1 unifying goal: to redefine success in business.

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. This is a good explanation of what social entrepreneurship is! I wasn’t sure what to think a few months ago when I hadn’t even heard of the term before. In the past couple months, I’ve come to be more familiar with entrepreneurial ventures, and the example in this post is very easy to understand how the model works. I think that our generation will experience an increase in social entrepreneurship, as we incorporate our careers with what we believe in. It will be a wonderful way to benefit society and certain groups within it if there are entrepreneurs that can make profits out of their own passions, helping others while also supporting their own businesses.

  2. The article earlier in the semester about Rostam Zafari gave me a hint as to what social entrepreneurship (SE) was like, but I’ve seen SE companies for several years now without having a proper introduction to the topic. LifeStraw is an amazing company that provides superior water filtration devices that are handheld and portable. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/faculty-research/publications/lifestraw-carbon-water-sustainable-funding-public-health-intervention
    This blog is very handy though, especially when it calls for the need of a proper definition in order to remove ambiguity and allow for research to be done. I also agree with this blog when it says that SE’s aim aligns well with millennial values, and I believe that its rise in popularity is a direct result of that.
    As the blog “What Makes a Creative Leader” stated, it will take creativity to solve the increasingly complex issues that today’s societies face.

  3. Creative leaders, transformational leaders, women leaders, and the list goes on to the traits that make leaders more productive and successful. Definition of a leader is very abstract; there are hundreds of thousands of qualities which makes one a successful leader. While I focused so hard on the one figure that was a leader, I missed the big picture. A business does not function on one person alone, and reading this article gave me another point of view that I was not aware of before. Social entrepreneurship focuses on people rather than money, and it aims to improve people and help making them more successful rather than focusing on how to earn more. While I believe that it is important, I also believe that it is not the only idea in which a business thrives. It is a combination of multiple ideas. While what social entrepreneurship tries to aim for is important, it is also important to focus on tedious details as well.

  4. Seeing a social need and finding resourceful and creative ways to fulfill that need is an incredible endeavor that requires insight, dedication, and tenacity. Social entrepreneurship does seem to focus more on the greater good rather than the proverbial bottom line, and it is commendable that so many young people are the driving force behind changing the landscape of social awareness. I do wonder at the sustainability aspect of their efforts. Are most of these organizations self-sustaining? How many of these organizations arise each year? How many fail or cannot take flight? How many succeed and are recognized by the public? How are they bringing people into their cause? What impact are they making and for how long?
    It is interesting to read that lacking a common definition for social entrepreneurship prevents research from being done and prevents its complete academic legitimacy. Despite the lack of a definition that can put social entrepreneurship into a box to be packaged and doled out to business people as something to emulate, I think it would be more beneficial to allow it to remain a fluid model that is allowed to morph and shape itself. Allowing innovative and creative thinkers to come together to do social good is a beautiful thing. Teaching potential entrepreneurs about social entrepreneurship may shape the business models that are to come benefitting rather than taking from those that they say that they cater to. Hopefully reaching out to young startup social entrepreneurs to teach them how to follow a few basic entrepreneurial principles will give them the financial foundation they need to remain self-sustainable, visible, and long-lived.

  5. Like everyone else I didn’t know what Social entrepreneurship was until reading this article. I thought it was creating new types of social media websites or something of that nature. The actually meaning is so much more beneficial to our society. I think what B corps is doing is very helpful and I can identify with their cause. I’m actually anemic, so I know how important it is to get your dose of iron. I’m fortune enough that I don’t suffer the major risks of being iron deficient and it makes me happy that their are people out there helping combat this medical condition.This article also has made me think about the future veterinary clinic I want to open. I really want to have a clinic that helps poor families receive healthcare for their pets at a discounted rate. I believe pets are apart of the family too and their health is important too.

  6. I first heard about social entrepreneurship in 2012 in my Honors seminar class. My professor a communications expert believed that SE’s were the best thing ever and I believe he is right. No one can disagree or complain that businesses like Lucky Iron Fish are doing anything wrong or morally unjust. The founder saw a problem and simply made a business that would fix the problem. I am actually in disbelief that this is a real business. It just seems to good to be true. But it is the exact same thing I said when I heard about Toms, the shoe company. I remember a few years ago when Toms were very popular and I was begging my mom to get me a pair. While Toms are not as popular, they still are a social entrepreneurship. Every since my professor introduce me to the topic I have been obsessed with learning more about social entrepreneurs. In fact, I have a blog dedicated to showcasing businesses that sell items and use to profits to donate back to charity. It is called shopthecauze.com! Instagram is @shopthecauze. If any of you ladies have spare time I would love for you to check it out! I update it weekly!

  7. I think it is awesome how the founders of Lucky Iron Fish developed a product that not only created revenue for themselves (which is often the primary goal for entrepreneurs) but helped out an overarching cause like iron deficiency in 3rd world countries (I’m assuming that is their target considering the lack of availability to proper nutrition). I think this blog post would really resonate with the health/nutrition majors in our that class aspire to be entrepreneurs and leaders in their field. Social entrepreneurs could learn a lot from the example lead by the Lucky Iron Fish company. Success of developing a new idea or creating a new business will come when you can capture the attention of the people(preferably in a positive way) and if you find a way to contribute help to a social or environmental issue, that’s a plus!

  8. When I clicked on this blog, I did not know what social entrepreneurship was. I just assumed it was building up a business through social outlooks like social media or networking. When I think of an entrepreneur, I think of someone who is only concerned with making money, no matter the consequences. I was surprised when social entrepreneurship was defined as having a bigger focus on people rather than profit. I like the idea of helping others who are less fortunate. B corporations have such a great purposes and are an amazing idea. The fact that one of these companies helps families lower their risks of iron deficiency is so awesome. Every company should take a lesson from B corps and look to help the community first. When I am involved or have a business in the future, I definitely will think of others first and try to make my goal to make a difference in the community.

  9. Before reading this article, I assumed social entrepreneurship meant building businesses through social media (such as instagram). However, the more I read through the article, I realized that there are many businesses that can be classified as “social entrepreneur businesses” because they all have a common goal of helping fellow citizens and focusing on social structures rather than statistics/finances.
    I personally believe social entrepreneurship is the most important type because it takes into account the relationships between people that occur daily. If you don’t understand/connect with your consumers, then how are you supposed to provide a product that they can truly appreciate? When focusing on social value rather than financial value, companies are able to provide a quality product which will in turn provide profits as popularity for the product gains momentum.
    Although my initial idea of social entrepreneurship was not exact with the article, I still believe that social media definitely helps further the agenda of social entrepreneurs. They are able to connect with their customers on a more personal/less stressful level through comments, direct messaging and sharing posts. Not only does it help social entrepreneurs create a brand for themselves, but it also allows others to spread the word much more fast compared to physical greetings.

  10. As I was reading the article, I began the article with little idea of how to define social entrepreneurism. The definition stated by the author resonated with me as I saw myself in the words. Instilling social value in people is something I crave because I myself felt devalued socially growing up. The example gave a further clarification for me as I read about the purpose of the Lucky Iron Fish project. First of all it is a stellar idea with the potential to change people’s lives. The social purpose of the B corps is to use the power of their business for good. By providing iron deficient people with a lasting source of iron, Lucky Iron Fish Project is a great definition of social entrepreneurism.

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