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Paul C. Light on Social Entrepreneurship – Learning What We Don’t Know

| Friday September 25th, 2009 | 2 Comments
social entrepreneur

Social Entrepreneur

By John Comberiate

Speaking at the Leadership for a Better World – Creating Social Value through Innovation Conference, Paul C. Light set out to define what it is to be a Social Entrepreneur.  Lack of clarity in the term often creates conflict between groups that feel they have been promoting social values throughout their existence and others who see it in the narrow context of treating a problem instead of solving it.  Paul defines it as “Innovative activity designed to solve an intractable problem” and has come to this definition by researching myths around the Entrepreneur, the Idea, the Opportunity and the Organization.

Read on…

The Entrepreneur

Paul says of these four areas, the entrepreneur takes the most focus.  The myth is that Social Entrepreneurs think differently.  In his research, he has found this isn’t exactly a myth, it’s more of a simplification. Entrepreneurs are not always more risk seeking but they do turn out to be more optimistic.  They are sometimes optimistic to the point of hubris, however, not questioning the value of what they are doing.

The Idea

The myth around the ideas behind Social Entrepreneurship is that the ideas are always new.  The “newness” is not in the idea itself, rather it comes in the combination of ideas, their delivery or application.  Often social entrepreneurs take ideas from multiple disciplines and use them together to form something different that hasn’t been done before.  The “idea” is the creativity of seeing something in a new light.

The Opportunity

The general thinking is that Social Entrepreneurial activities happen in groupings, and this turns out to be true.  Often Social Entrepreneurship occurs in waves, large amounts happening all at once followed by periods of inactivity.  Paul says that now is a time of great change and even if it were not, there is always opportunity to create new ventures.

The Organization

Paul says that there is a myth that Social Entrepreneurial organizations never age.  As normal organizations age, they formalize and bureaucratize in order to support growth.  This is going to happen, but the strength behind Social Entrepreneurial organizations is their ability to innovate – not once – but twice, three times and so on.  These organizations are designed for change, adapting and remaining agile.

Characteristics of Social Entrepreneurial Companies

There is no defined formula at this point for a Social Entrepreneurial company, but Paul’s research have given him some theories for characteristics they need to have.  They include:

  • Being Rigorous: Measuring results, knowing why they exist, describing a value proposition.  They ask themselves tough questions and challenge themselves.
  • Honesty: Being able to tell themselves when something is not working and make the change.
  • Trustworthy: Organizations that continue to inspire an entrepreneur have hope.  They have hopefulness about the future, a sense that they are working towards a goal that will help something bigger than themselves.

Paul leaves us with this new reality: The world has changed.  No matter the sector, non-profit, for-profit or government, we are all public servants.  We are all engaged in improving the life of the people in the world.  We are all striving to be Social Entrepreneurs.


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  1. September 26, 2009 at 10:31 am PDT | Alex Gudich-Yulle writes:

    Hey John,

    I had to sit this session out at the Leadership for a Better World conference so thank you very much for taking great notes and sharing with the world. This seems like it was a condensed version of the first couple of chapters of Light’s book, In Search of Social Entrepreneurship.

    In the book, I loved Light’s differentiation between the inclusive and exclusive definitions of social entreprenerurship and the need to define what it is we are so often talking about.

    In light of Paul’s description, do you still consider Seth Goldman, of Honest Tea, a social entrepreneur? I think he’s a great entrepreneur, and he’s done amazing things with Honest Tea, but I think calling him a social entrepreneur is a misnomer. Seth set out to found a beverage company, not solve an intractable social problem, and while he’s done amazing things (created a bunch of social value) I don’t think he’s what we consider a social entrepreneur.

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    • September 27, 2009 at 8:31 am PDT | John Comberiate writes:

      Alex,

      I see your point but, in my opinion, Seth is still an example of a Social Entrepreneur. What makes Seth a Social Entrepreneur in Paul Light’s definition is that he’s attacking the intractable problems of obesity in the US as well as the harmful practices that are seen as needed to create a beverage company with a global reach through his efforts to grow organic tea leaves. This was a key part of his thinking when he set out to start his company and he stuck with it through the many hurdles he faced.

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