Forbes’ Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs List Lacks Social Entrepreneurs

Last week Forbes added a new list to its famous collection. It wasn’t about the richest people in Asia, the most powerful women in America or the best companies worldwide, but about the top social entrepreneurs. For the first time in its 94-year history, Forbes assembled the Impact 30: a list of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs.

This was another sign of the growing popularity of social entrepreneurship (if you really needed one), yet there was something a bit strange about this list. While Forbes defined “social entrepreneur” as ‘a person who uses business to solve social issues,’ most of the people of the list didn’t meet this definition.

First, let me be clear – the list is full with wonderful and impressive people, leaders and innovators that are changing the world in a profound way. It’s just that not every one of them can be described as a social entrepreneur. Some of them created non-profit organizations and not businesses to solve social issues, while others created businesses that are mostly dealing with environmental issues, not social ones.

You might wonder if the whole issue of definition is really that important and why shouldn’t we just celebrate the fact that Forbes chose to highlight good people that do a lot of good. Well, definition of social entrepreneurship is important, as Roger Martin and Sally Osberg explain in a 2007 article published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition):

Although the potential benefits offered by social entrepreneurship are clear to many of those promoting and funding these activities, the actual definition of what social entrepreneurs do to produce this order of magnitude return is less clear… If we can achieve a rigorous definition, then those who support social entrepreneurship can focus their resources on building and strengthening a concrete and identifiable field. Absent that discipline, proponents of social entrepreneurship run the risk of giving the skeptics an ever-expanding target to shoot at, and the cynics even more reason to discount social innovation and those who drive it.

There are many definitions for social entrepreneurs. Ashoka, whose founder and chief executive Bill Drayton was on the panel of experts that helped Forbes to assemble the list, provides for example the following definition: “Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change.”

Forbes’ definition is also a good one – a person who uses business to solve social issues. Yet, among their Impact 30 list I could find only two examples that can fit this description. The first are Sam Goldman and Ned Tozun of D. Light Design, a company that works to replace kerosene lamps with portable and affordable solar lamps, enabling households without reliable electricity to attain the same quality of life as those with electricity. The second is Alvaro Rodríguez Arregui of IGNIA, an impact investing venture capital firm that invests in companies that work to assist the millions of Mexicans who lack decent housing, health care and clean water.

All the rest of the people on this list just don’t fit Forbes’ own description of social entrepreneurs. The majority of them are working in non-profit organizations – Jen Chen of Embrace, Darell Hammond of KaBoom, Sara Horowitz of Freenlancers Union, Jordan Kassalow of VisionSpring and so on. Again, they all do an important job, tackling critical social issues, from providing reasonably priced health insurance to the self-employed (Freelancers Union) to providing affordable reading glasses (VisionSpring), but none of these organizations are for-profit.

Some would claim that non-profits should be an integral part of the social entrepreneurship space, but if Forbes specifically refers to business, then it’s not clear why so many of these people on the list come from the NGO world. Forbes does acknowledge this contradiction, explaining that “some of the people on our list run nonprofits, so the market-based approach doesn’t apply. But we’ve included them anyway, because they’re creating innovative, new solutions to a host of old problems.”

Martin and Osberg described this sort of inclusiveness Forbes is using in their 2007 article as the creation of “an immense tent into which all manner of socially beneficial activities fit,” and explain that too much inclusiveness can jeopardize the fulfillment of the promise behind social entrepreneurship might cause it to fall into disrepute. And anyway, if Forbes doesn’t want to use the definition it gave, why giving it in first place?

Even stranger is the fact that when you do look at the businesses that are on the list, you find that except the two I mentioned, none is involved with social issues. Tom Szaky of TerraCycle, which turns waste into new products, Daniel Yates of Opower, which helps people reduce their energy consumption by providing them home energy reports and Jeff Mendelson of New Leaf paper, a green paper company, are all great entrepreneurs, but they’re clearly focused on environmental issues and not social ones.

Forbes had good intentions, trying to present the efforts of social entrepreneurs that make an impact and should be applauded for their commitment, innovation and ability to provide results. At the same time, we could expect them to be a bit more clear and coherent in choosing their top 30 social entrepreneurs. Hopefully they will continue with this tradition, focusing next time on entrepreneurs that actually use business to solve social issues.

Image credit: jurveston, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is also an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.