5 Characteristics of Thriving Social Entrepreneurs

Jean Case
Jean Case
Apr 23, 2015 · 4 min read
Warby Parker eye examination in the field.

#1: Be a Problem Solver

It goes without saying that launching and building a company takes a special type of person. And if you’re a social entrepreneur, tackling some of the world’s most daunting challenges, requires a truly unique set of characteristics. These characteristics — five of which I’ll cover in a series of upcoming blog posts — can apply to anyone building an organization or even growing an initiative, but social entrepreneurs embrace each of these to the fullest.

The first characteristic that every social entrepreneur must embrace is the spirit of problem solving. In fact, some of the most interesting companies and innovative breakthroughs have come from ordinary folks who at the start might not have considered themselves entrepreneurs. The truth is, anyone can be an entrepreneur because entrepreneurs are at their simplest problem solvers. As Lilly Tomlin famously quipped, “I said ‘Somebody should do something about that.’ Then I realized I am somebody.”

In social enterprise, we’ve seen the emergence of successful leaders who lived a problem and then built an organization to address it. Neil Blumenthal first worked for VisionSpring, a nonprofit that trains female entrepreneurs to fulfill its mission to ensure that everyone in the world has access to eyeglasses. In that role, he helped expand the nonprofit’s presence to 10 countries, supporting thousands of female entrepreneurs and boosting the organization’s staff from two to 30. But he also realized the enormity of problem and the challenge of scale. In business school he linked up with his co-founders and created the eyeglasses company Warby Parker. Neil saw an opportunity to solve two significant problems through one business: one, dramatically improve consumers’ ability to purchase stylish eyewear at an affordable price through an innovative online sales technique; and two, use the success of the new company to deliver eyeglasses to those in need at scale via a 1-for-1 model. The company’s 1-for-1 model is unique — instead of providing free eyeglasses, Warby Parker trains and equips entrepreneurs in developing countries who in turn sell the glasses. So in addition to delivering improved eyesight, Warby Parker is helping to drive economic opportunity more broadly at scale.

Then there is the story of two moms — Kristen Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Tobey. Two professionals from the education sector who grew frustrated by the poor choices of food available to students that they witnessed daily while working in and with public schools. So they set out to co-found Revolution Foods — more than just a company, Revolution Foods is truly creating a food revolution in our nation’s schools. Their mission: To build lifelong healthy eaters by making kid-inspired, chef-crafted food accessible to all. Now serving more than 1 million meals a week, Kristin and Kirsten are great models of being “that somebody” who did something about a really big problem and have built a great company in the process.

But this idea of the greatest entrepreneurs and inventors being “problem solvers” isn’t new. Indeed, it was Alexander Graham Bell’s early passion and near-fixation on using new techniques to aid in hearing that contributed to his later inventions in sound technology. Bell’s own mother had lost her hearing when Bell was just 12 and he had spent his young years finding different techniques to communicate with her. He turned his full time passion and career toward helping the hearing impaired as a renowned teacher of the deaf in Boston, all the while developing innovations to help this community communicate. Many believe it was his marriage to one his students, Mabel Hubbard, a young woman who had lost her hearing at age 5, that served as a great influence for his commercial work. Few developments have so changed the world as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone. What is often lost in the story is that it all started with a problem he was trying to solve.

And then there is Madame CJ Walker. She had a problem. Her hair was falling out and what remained didn’t have the softness and the sheen she desired. It was the early 1900’s and Madame Walker was a young black woman from the South. Frustrated by lack of products available to address her needs, she invented her own line of African-American hair care products which she proceeded to promote by traveling around the country lecturing, giving demonstrations and selling the products. She found so much success, she later established the Madame CJ Walker Laboratories, which she used to manufacture her products and train beauticians. By first setting out to solve a problem, Madame Walker built a hair care empire that enabled her to become among the nation’s first self-made female millionaires. Before her life was over, she embarked on another important role — that of generous philanthropist, where there too, she worked diligently to address problems in her own community and across the nation.

These are just a few examples — old and new — that demonstrate how entrepreneurs have built great businesses starting with the simple act of solving a problem. Next time you find yourself frustrated or something gets under your skin and you are made to think, “if only…” that could be a moment when your new social enterprise is born. But, solving a problem is just the beginning of an entrepreneurs’ journey. Watch this space — next week, we’ll share more on the second characteristic that social entrepreneurs need in order to thrive — absorbing the lessons of others before you.


This is the first story in a 5-part series on social entrepreneurship

Jean Case

Written by

Jean Case

CEO of the Case Foundation, which invests in people and ideas that change the world, and Chairman of the National Geographic Society Board of Trustees.

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