Do we need a better definition for social entrepreneurship?

Do we need a better definition for social entrepreneurship? - Post image

It would be an understatement to say that the theme of ‘social entrepreneurship’ is thriving. As I look back at my time so far at Impact Hub Accra, I feel my thoughts and assumptions on the concept of social entrepreneurship change on a daily basis. This not only applies to my views on the subject within my (local) settings of Accra, Ghana and ‘Africa’, but also on a global scale. When we speak of social entrepreneurialism and social enterprises, what do we mean?

Are we referring to a unanimously understood definition, or do we all have our own take on what it means? Perhaps most importantly, does it matter if we have a better definition for social entrepreneurship or not?

Most of these questions have been fuelled by my recent experiences of observing, questioning and engaging with entrepreneurs and startups who are members of Impact Hub Accra. When interviewing these members as well as the management team, it is evident that recognition of the term clearly exists in a myriad of nuanced and elaborate forms.

A quick online search results in dozens of sites and articles which explore, highlight and question the theme and its development. International bodies such as Skoll, ANDE and the Schwab Foundation all play a key role in supporting and promoting ‘social entrepreneurs’. Publications such as Forbes continue to cover the domain extensively, while the Guardian has exclusive sections on social entrepreneurship and social enterprise. Prestigious universities now offer ‘social’ MBAs alongside more ‘traditional’ programmes.

Do we need a better definition?

I believe that our quest for a ‘definition’ of social entrepreneur is not only problematic but also futile. Our attempts to classify certain individuals our business activities as ‘social’ or not digress from the bigger picture.

The fact that many organisations, individuals and practices are now vying to be accredited with ‘social’ stamps and value speaks volume of the shifts in both supply and demand forces. While one might be more determined to have a greater social impact than the other, what matters most to me is that there is a palpable shift towards creating more socially aware, sustainable goods and services, not only from supplier motives but through consumer demand. Are we slowly but surely moving towards a world where socially responsible motives are inherent within business practices and individual action, without having to be singled out or separately identified?

Impact Hub AccraPhoto by Justice Okai-Allotey

Social entrepreneurs in context: Findings from Impact Hub Accra

The reason I have been led to this conclusion is largely on account of my findings and experiences to date at Impact Hub Accra. While not all the entrepreneurs and founders who are based at the hub might actively associate themselves with ‘social’ entrepreneurialism, the majority of them are contributing to societal improvements in some way or form. Whether it be through their core business activity, job creation or an intent to improve local livelihoods in the future.

Many of the members of the hub have employed local graduates and young professionals, a crucial step towards alleviating problems of crippling youth unemployment and underemployment across the country. Others are directly addressing pressing, local issues such as education, accessible healthcare and renewable energy sources.

Examples

Clear examples include ventures such as Chalkboard Education, Etility and Crowdfrica, all based at the hub. Chalkboard Education is on a mission to offer e-learning and ICT solutions to universities throughout sub-Saharan Africa , even offering a unique offline functionality. At its core, their vision is to allow anyone who wants to study to do so, even if they are unable to access a campus easily.

Etility helps Ghanaian reduce their electricity costs and aims to spread the use of renewable energy not only throughout Ghana but across the continent, thereby tackling the burgeoning problem of energy needs which is inevitable considering current population growth trends.

Crowdfrica, meanwhile, offers a crowdfunding platform connecting donors to underserved individuals seeking good healthcare and education access. They ultimately wish to enable anyone, anywhere to easily donate to medical and educational causes.

Next to these ventures and others which have clear, ‘social’ purpose, there are innumerable other members of the hub who have visions of making an impact in some way or form in the future. As one member of the hub explained to me, it is not so much a question of whether social tangents are incorporated into their business plans, but “how and when they will play out”. Furthermore, there seems to be no opinion that “profit” and “impact” should be mutually exclusive. It is through growing their business and creating profit that the entrepreneurs and founders seek to leverage the amount of impact they can have, not sabotage it.

Impact Hub AccraPhoto by Justice Okai-Allotey

Impact

The members of the hub are not trying to define social entrepreneurialism. In fact, most would rather abstain from labelling themselves with any sort of restrictive insignia. Instead, they possess an inherent intention to ‘do good’ and to make some sort of impact, either now or in the future. They are not trying to define, but rather embed a visceral calling towards positive social action within either their current business practices or future intent.

I look forward to the day that we won’t need to make any distinction between ‘social entrepreneurs’ and ‘entrepreneurs’, simply because all entrepreneurs will be willing and proud to make a positive impact. In some way or form, no matter how little or small. Being thought of as a ‘social’ entrepreneur should become the norm, as opposed to the exception, without the need for extended attempts at definition and labelling of ‘them’ versus ‘us’.

Eline Sleurink is currently based at Impact Hub Accra as part of a combined research and placement project for her master’s in African Studies at Leiden University. During this period she will be publishing a series of guest blog posts on the VC4A platform, which look into the success factors of hubs, the social entrepreneurialism ecosystem and innovation pathways.

Credit for the photo at the top of this page: Justice Okai-Allotey

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