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Aparna Katre: What Does It Mean to Be a “Social Entrepreneur”?

April 24, 2012 ·

Aparna Katre--What Does It Mean to Be a “Social Entrepreneur”?

We live in exciting times. We hold in our hands phones that allow us to communicate freely, access data and plan our schedules. We partner with companies and workers halfway around the world, and do so in real time. We have immediate access to information that can change outcomes, even lives.

Our understanding of "business" is changing. True, most students leaving business school will have in mind careers in corporations making considerable salaries, perhaps traveling widely or relocating to other countries. However, students also now have the option to choose "social entrepreneurship" – that is, to use the tools and strategies of business development to make socially conscious enterprises succeed.

Business technology and organizational methods now make it possible to do both: to operate businesses which are self-sustaining and generate profits, but which specifically address social ills. But that is not readily apparent: many students assume that the nonprofit and for-profit worlds are fundamentally separate, and that one’s career path necessarily means committing to one at the expense of the other. One MBA student put it this way: "I do think businesses must serve societal purpose, but I don’t think it can be their primary goal or mission. If so, it would probably be a non-profit organization or NGO or a CSR activity."

However, there are several examples of successful businesses which exist to fulfill a societal mission. Green Light Planet is delivering long-lasting, affordable products such as solar lamps to help families transition away from using kerosene lamps. Drishtee’s Education and Livelihood project operates a rural BPO center for the impoverished. Some of these are registered business entities, while others are charitable organizations: it really doesn’t matter which so long as the business is constituted to address a societal issue, and seeks to generate profits to sustain the business in the long-term service of the cause.

One common view is that "doing good" must wait until the MBA student has cemented a successful career in the for-profit sector. One student put it this way: "I want to do something for the education of poor, but first I need to do something which can provide enough financial stability to sustain my family. I don’t think starting a social business will help me do that."

But, in fact, there is no lack of opportunity to "make a difference" this way. For example, micro-lending, done properly, remains a viable method of helping communities. Likewise, helping communities obtain clean water, nutritious food, fuel, education, and access to banking services and telecommunications are all viable avenues.

Moreover, with current global economic pressures, entrepreneurs are needed in these areas: traditional funding for NGOs through foundations and private donations is drying up. Therefore, NGOs must take a business approach in order to survive and sustain. Increasingly, thinking of "business as an agent for societal good" will become the norm.

We are not speaking here of becoming wealthy; that goal is best pursued in the service of multinational corporations marketing and delivering products and services through complex global channels. But for the individual who wants to "make a difference" and produce sufficient income, there is no time like the present. Even as we speak, talented entrepreneurs are setting up businesses which fulfill a social need and, at the same time, support them and their families.

"It’s our job to give back to the society," admits one MBA student. And, more and more, this is entirely possible by bringing for-profit methodology to the running of nonprofit ventures.

Aparna Katre is a Consultant at Vidyamit Inc. and CEO at The Global Challenge Award in the Greater Chicago, Illinois area. She is a student in the PhD in Management: Designing Sustainable Systems program at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

Tags: DM Reflections

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