Am I a social entrepreneur? Are you a social entrepreneur? I steadfastly refuse to call myself one. I think that it is for others to say. However, I am very happy to say that I started, and I run a social enterprise. Where does this nervousness come from? And, is it right for everyone to proudly proclaim themselves as social entrepreneurs? The answer is not as straightforward as it might seem.
Identity is important, particularly for the many nascent social entrepreneurs we support. I wondered whether they would see themselves as ‘social entrepreneurs’ and whether that term is too loaded, too jaded, and maybe even stands in the way of people developing business ideas.
In a world fascinated with innovation, startups and ‘purpose’ the term ‘social entrepreneur’ has gained a certain appeal. It has become a badge of honour; a symbol of creativity; a mark of autonomy; a signifier of doing good. Firstly, let us clarify what a social entrepreneur truly is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary a ‘social entrepreneur’ is: “A person who undertakes or establishes an enterprise with the aim of solving social problems or effecting social change.” I’m broadly happy with that definition.
The OED defines a plain old standard entrepreneur as: “A person who owns and manages a business, bearing the financial risks of the enterprise; specifically, a person who sets up a business.” Various online sources mention the origin of the word entrepreneur coming from the French word ‘entreprendre’ meaning to undertake, to begin or to launch. Add the word social to this and we are back to the OED. All seems reasonable.
So, social entrepreneurs are individuals who take calculated risks to create and set up and manage businesses with the goal of making a profit and solving social problems. They are often seen as visionaries, risk-takers, and problem solvers. Being a social entrepreneur is not just about having a business idea; it is about delivering that idea, navigating the complexities of the both the market and delivering social impact and bearing the responsibilities of running a venture.
With these definitions in mind, you could argue that people who freelance are not truly entrepreneurs. They are often hired hands and are usually working for others. And, while it is admirable to pursue personal ventures and financial independence, not all such endeavours can be considered entrepreneurial. That said you could also argue that they are still 'undertaking' enterprising activity. These distinctions matter because they carry different expectations, risks, and responsibilities. I think this is where some of my nervousness comes from – I started Iridescent Ideas as pretty much a glorified freelancey business adviser. Now, with five staff, various long-term contracts and projects it feels more like a ‘proper business’!
Iridescent was never a side hustle though. And despite dabbling with other jobs and roles – cricket coaching, writing, mentoring, composing and playing music, lecturing, being a removal and bin man to name a few – for the last twelve years running our business has been, and remains, my main profession.
A concern arises when people hastily adopt the social entrepreneur label without fully grasping the rigors involved. Entrepreneurship, social or otherwise is far from a glamorous lifestyle filled with unlimited freedom, Lamborghinis and parties on the French Riviera. It often entails long hours, financial instability, and a relentless commitment to one's vision. Aspiring social entrepreneurs should be prepared for these challenges rather than romanticizing the idea. I don’t know of any social entrepreneurs with a private jet.
On the flip side, embracing the social entrepreneurial identity can be empowering. It signifies a mindset of agency, of embracing uncertainty, of adaptability and of resilience in the face of adversity. Many successful social entrepreneurs have started with modest resources and built thriving businesses. The title seems to motivate people to think creatively, seek opportunities, and take calculated risks all in pursuit of business with a good cause.
Whether it is right to call oneself a social entrepreneur is moot. If others want to call me this so be it. I will remain hesitant to use the term myself. If others want to call themselves it, good for them. The social entrepreneurial identity can be enabling. It should be worn with a sense of responsibility and an understanding of what it truly means. And, ultimately, it is not about the title; it is about the journey and the impact one creates along the way.