Written by Virginie Roell-Lacaille

The terms ‘social entrepreneur’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’ have been around since the 1960s and 1970s, when they appeared in literature on social change. But recently, the buzz around social entrepreneurship has been growing fast, and the notion has become more mainstream. There are many ways of understanding what ‘social entrepreneurship’ really is. One definition is ‘the activity of identifying novel and unique ways of addressing a pressing and social need like homelessness or unemployment.’ (Todres, M. and Lewis, P. (2012) ‘Why Social Enterprise Matters’ in ISBE ‘Social Enterprise’).

Many worthy examples come to mind: Muhamad Yunus’ Grameen Bank that gives access to credit to those excluded from the banking system, or TOMS, who donate one pair of shoes for each pair that is sold, boldly stating ‘We’re in business to help change lives.’. Such examples are inspiring and laudable, and rightly attract the public’s attention and good will. Social entrepreneurship often generates a great deal of positive feedback, and sets itself in opposition to ‘greedy’ commercial enterprise. However, one might argue that all enterprises need to be social in order to succeed in the long term: unless they serve some social good, generate social value and achieve some social change, it is unlikely that they will be sustainable.

While their social impact may have been diluted through their growth and the complexities of running such huge corporations, the origins of large multinational companies are often rooted in a desire to address a social need. For Unilever, this was the desire to promote cleanliness and hygiene in Victorian England, while Nestlé began with a German pharmacists’ launch of his Farine lactée, a combination of cow’s milk, wheat flour and sugar that saved the life of a neighbour’s child, placing nutrition at the heart of the company. Had Unilever’s Sunlight Soap or this life-saving infant milk not met a social need, they would never have taken off and endured.

On a more modest scale, Blueprint has been working with a number of SMEs. One of these, a café owner who initially claimed that she was in the catering business by chance, was helped by other local entrepreneurs to see that her business was actually a social hub, providing ‘a feel-good place and feel-good food for the community.’ While she may not have realised it, her colleagues and customers certainly recognise that she is not just an entrepreneur, but a social entrepreneur. Similarly, a hairdresser realised that he was in business not just to cut hair, but ‘to make people feel good about themselves’, thus also serving a social need, instead of just providing a service with his technical skills. At the heart of each of these businesses is a purpose that is focused on delivering outcomes for people and creating a community.

Ultimately, we at Blueprint believe that business, large or small, is best when it serves society. We encourage companies to operate to a purpose that respects people and contributes to a better society, thereby delivering long-term sustainable performance. This is in line with Todres and Lewis’ conclusion that ‘the outcomes may be economic and/or social, but the process of entrepreneurship is always social.’