Is the term ‘Social Entrepreneur’ overused?


Last Sunday I sat in on a ‘meeting of the minds’ between young professionals working to grow a generation of changemakers and social entrepreneurs in India. A great way for an Acumen Fellow to spend a Sunday!

Among those present were Vipin from Ashoka Youth Venture (YV) India – YV’s mission is a compelling one – believing that everyone should feel empowered to address societal change, and in particular that the youth are the tipping factor and need to learn early in life that they can impact social change. Also present was Pooja, who co-leads UnLtd India, an organization that supports Indians with a social change idea in years 1-3 of the project’s start and Aditi who leads the EdelGive Foundation , a venture philanthropy fund seeded by Edelweiss Capital, working to create education & employment opportunities for underprivileged youth.

I have to admit I did not sit through the whole day, but I did listen in on a conversation that got me thinking…started with Pooja suggesting that maybe we (…passionate souls working in this space) overuse the term ‘social entrepreneur’, and by applying it too broadly ultimately dilute its meaning. So who is a ‘social entrepreneur’? Muhamed Yunus clearly, but the term also applies to many of Acumen investee CEOs & Founders. Indeed one of the Founders of 1298 seems to have a continuous flow of new societal change ideas that he implements. Maybe that is the key word, “implementation” – many smart people have great ideas and the will to drive them forward, but are not able to implement them. (I guess that is where the organizations mentioned above and the Acumen Fund come in…first you inspire a ‘budding changemaker’ through YV, who goes on to get funding from UnLtd India and then gets larger investment from Acumen to scale.)  Am interested in fellow Fellows and the community’s thoughts on whether the term ‘social entrepreneur’ is applied to loosely.

13 Responses to “Is the term ‘Social Entrepreneur’ overused?”

  1. James Wu Says:

    Hi Joanna – I think there’s definitely room for clarity in the sector. Especially since we’re at a critical point where so many people are looking into the “social enterprise” space and wondering how & where they can get a foot in the door and add value. You might be interested in a somewhat related post that Sasha wrote last week:

    Also, exciting to hear about the “meeting of the [young] minds”. Things really taking off here with the volunteer Young Professionals group: … also excited about the Student Leaders Workshop we just announced today:

    Hope all’s well!

  2. Jenara Nerenberg Says:

    Joanna – I just published a piece on your exact question over at Please let me know what you think.

    I’m glad to hear this is something you’re also thinking about, as it’s an important question.

  3. Jason Shen Says:

    I think social entrepreneur is used perhaps a little more than it should be. If you’ve got a great idea for making the world a better place, then you are a social innovator. But the people who take the risks to start and lead organizations that actually drive that positive change are the ones who deserve the title of social entrepreneur.

    At Gumball University, we are trying to encourage students to get more involved with the practice social entrepreneurship – – and helping people start their own social ventures.

  4. What Does “Social Entrepreneur” Actually Mean? | The ChubbyBlog Says:

    […] saw an interesting post on the Acumen Fellows blog today which asked “Is the term social entrepreneur overused?” and it got us thinking as this has been a challenge for us in assembling […]

  5. Karthik Says:

    Hi Joanna,
    Thanks for the post. You bring up a good question. I think the word is greatly overused and so is the word “BoP”.
    I personally feel that most of the articles/blogs/chatter that we all access are operated by people who are presently non-entrepreneurs (i.e investors, academics, donors,press). Most of the entrepreneurs are focused on building and growing their businesses and wouldn’t care less about the terminology used to describe them. The narrative, therefore tends to be one-sided.
    Since we are on the ground (as fellows), we have a responsibility to provide a balanced view, a sort of on-the-ground reality check. We owe it to the community.

  6. kevin jones Says:

    the one sided narrative is a good, but not totally valid point. social enterprises have to win a battle of hearts and minds. and blogs, twitter, etc. can help do that. it’s not just operations.not just mission. it’s message, too.

  7. Social Capital Markets 2008 Blog » Blog Archive » Social entrepreneur: a tired definition? Says:

    […] Or maybe, who gets to do the defining, anyway? […]

  8. Marc Dangeard Says:

    The term “Social Entrepreneur” SHOULD be overused and diluted, because in the end if we really want to get out of a corner and change the world we need everybody to become a social entrepreneur, and any business to become a social business. I am for a very broad definition, because we cannot let the rest of the world feel comfortable that a small group somewhere is taking care of all the issues (health, poverty, war, economic and ecologic crisis, etc…) while the “normal” people keep doing business as usual.
    If you try to stick to an elite of people who deserve the title, our troubles just got bigger…

  9. kevin jones Says:

    i agree mar, that we need to lose the special visionary hero heritage around social entrepreneur, with it’s exclusivity and elitism. we want to grow enterprises, not laud heroic entrepreneur. i would love to have an award at socap for the visionary heroic entrepreneur who realized the enterprise has grown past him or her and passes it off to an institution builder and takes ambassador status. that’s the social entrepreneur who’s the new beyond a hero model im looking for.

  10. joannaharries Says:

    Hmmm, some interesting thought provoking responses. Thanks all.

    I think Karthik has a point – I am wondering if ‘true’ Social Entrepreneurs (SE) really have any time to focus on message dissemination to a public audience? Aren’t they by definition laser focused on their mission and getting the work done? I think it is the job of organizations who fund and support SE to help build public awareness for their social cause.

    Also I think the problem with diluting a descriptive term is that it loses all meaning. I agree with Marc that it should not be reserved for the elite, but think it should perhaps be reserved for the ‘effective’, who are focused on execution and creating widespread social impact? There can still be other encouraging terms…”social innovator”, “budding changemaker”…

  11. Why Defining “Social Entrepreneur” is a Waste of Time | The ChubbyBlog Says:

    […] the post titled “Is the Term Social Entrepreneur Overused” by Joanna Harries. I think Joanna did a great job of framing the debate, but I think we failed her in driving resolution. Hopefully this post […]

  12. Sasha Says:

    Joanna, I’m not sure I agree with your last point that SEs are heads-down and it’s up to the chattering classes to spread the word. (I’m overstating your point…)

    I don’t know for a fact how Prof. Yunus spent his time, but I suspect that starting in the 80s and especially in the 90s he spent an increasing portion of externally focused, raising the profile of both Grameen and microfinance as a whole.

    I blogged about this a little while back, comparing the impact of Grameen Bank and BRAC, and asking the tough question: which of these two great organizations has had had a greater impact? It’s an impossible question to answer, as both of these towering examples of large-scale pro-poor enterprises. But I do think it is a worthwhile thought experiment when we think about what “the work” is when we want to make social change, and I think that without Grameen, flows of capital to the microfinance sector would be drastically less.

    I do agree that it may depend on the stage of the enterprise — I assume Dr. Yunus was totally heads down in the first decade…

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