How is Social Enterprise?

A friend recently commented to me that he was really excited about a new business he was about to undertake, but then added almost apologetically, “I know it’s not much of a social enterprise.” This seemed odd to me because in my experience Jason is as socially/environmentally/interpersonally conscious a person as I know. To me it was obvious: as long as Jason didn’t stray from his own values and ways of being, whatever ventures he undertook would by definition be social enterprise. As always, he would find a way to make sure nobody he interacted with was worse off for it. And if successful, at least a few groups of people (including himself and his investors) would be better off.

I then remembered another colleague who was universally praised by the media and others as being a one-man savior in Haiti after the earthquake. He had quite admirably hit the ground running, on his own initiative, with incredible resources, to set up a refugee camp. While I’m not sure how his efforts have evolved today, when I visited his camp I was struck by how isolated it was from the rest of the relief effort, and how sanitation and medical care were actually worse than what was reported about the USAID and Red Cross camps. This is not to question his good intentions or the impressive amount of work he was able to almost singlehandedly accomplish in a short period of time. But rather the way he was going about it possibly nullified all that.

Together these two examples illustrate to me that social enterprise is not about What you are doing so much as How you go about doing it.

To be sure, there are limits to this definition. Does it matter how Pepsi creates its products, or what refreshing innovation challenges it supports, when the vast majority of its operations are to sell us sugar water in plastic bottles?

But shifting the focus from What to How, enables us to see more clearly that most entrepreneurship these days is in fact social enterprise. Why? Because most entrepreneurs these days care deeply about social/environmental problems, and are intent on addressing them, either directly or indirectly through their business. Nor do you have to be an entrepreneur to be a social innovator.  Pepsico has legions of them as employees and consultants.

Calling yourself a Social Entrepreneur or saying you work in Social Innovation does not automatically make it so. And on the flip side, just because you don’t identify with these terms, doesn’t mean you are not a positive role model for social enterprise.

It’s time to shift the conversation from What to How.