Social entrepreneurship has been around, in one form or another, for decades if not longer. As an example, one of our country’s early social entrepreneurs, Reverend Edgar J. Helms, launched what has become Goodwill Industries in 1902 to provide both jobs and affordable clothes to people who needed both. Going back even further and prior to the Civil War, our own Prudence Crandall opened a boarding school for girls and young women of color who wanted to be teachers, the first such establishment in New England. At the time, no one called these people “social entrepreneurs” and, in fact, that term didn’t really come into use until the 1980s when Bill Drayton, a social entrepreneur himself, founded Ashoka, an organization dedicated to finding and supporting social entrepreneurs. Ashoka Fellows as they are called (3,500 from 92 countries) are entrepreneurs who have tackled some of the world’s most pressing social, cultural, and environmental challenges including poverty, hunger, health, education, human rights, and violence, to name a few.
What are some of the big challenges we are facing now? COVID-19 has ushered in a broad array, including unemployment and lockdowns accompanied by food, housing, and financial insecurity. In spite of the valiant efforts of our health care workers, our health care system seems broken and unable to cope with this crisis. Schools have been closed, resulting in uneven access between communities and even within communities. Our people and our communities are suffering economically, socially, and spiritually. As the song from the Broadway play “Hamilton” puts it “The World’s Turned Upside Down”; and it has. Which is why social entrepreneurship is particularly well suited to the challenges of our time.
Social entrepreneurs go after problems that are too big, too complex, and too far-reaching for individuals, communities, businesses, or government to fix on their own. Social entrepreneurs are innovators, capable of thinking outside of the box to design novel solutions for seemingly intractable problems. We need that now, because our world has changed in so many ways that we never imagined.
The other reason we need social entrepreneurs is because, within the framework of social entrepreneurship, the emphasis is on social. It’s about taking care of each other and working together to achieve common goals. It’s about resolving our differences so, together, we can make our communities and our world a better place. At this point in time, it’s about healing the wounds inflicted by the pandemic and a legacy of racism and discrimination. We need that now.
Social entrepreneurs are, by nature, action-oriented optimists. They believe that big problems can be solved and, better yet, they believe that they can figure out the means for solving them. They believe in a better and brighter future, and they are willing to take personal responsibility for helping to bring that about. They’re changemakers, and accept the risks that come with that role, and they are passionate about the causes they pursue. We need that now.
Each year reSET “graduates” a new cohort of social entrepreneurs from its accelerator program. They are in our communities now, working to achieve positive change and make a difference. Social entrepreneurs like these are an essential part of our entrepreneurial ecosystem, and they will help carry us through these extraordinarily hard times by addressing the challenges of today and the promise of tomorrow. By nature, social entrepreneurs are a stubborn breed, so they will hold fast to the belief that the “new normal” has to be better than the “old normal”, and that it has to be better for more people. They will find ways to bring us together to make it happen, and they will call forth the best in us. We need that now.
Susan Coleman is a reSET Board Member and Professor of Finance at the University of Hartford, where she teaches courses in entrepreneurial and corporate finance. Susan is also a co-author of three books, one on social entrepreneurship titled Creating the Social Venture. She previously served as a member of Governor M. Jodi Rell’s Economic Advisory Council.