Is Social Entrepreneurship Being Misunderstood?

In the current issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review, Marshall Ganz, Tamara Kay and Jason Spicer make a forceful critique of the field of social entrepreneurship, going so far as referring to this body of work as an over-hyped “distraction.” The authors’ central point is that social entrepreneurship is concerned with technical innovations to largely knowledge problems while our biggest collective problems are actually about power. And power problems, they suggest, are only solved by the kind of democratic political action that fueled the movements for civil rights, public education, environmental protection and more. The field of social entrepreneurship, they claim, either undervalues or deliberately undermines public voice and the role of government in shaping the kind of society we want to live in.

Ashoka was explicitly mentioned so we felt it was appropriate to respond directly. It’s true that Ashoka was the first to name “social entrepreneurship” and “social entrepreneurs” and support their ideas and organizations beginning in 1980 — work that continues to this day in more than 80 countries. But in reading this piece we felt that key points were missed or misrepresented.

Here are three reasons why:

1. Social entrepreneurship is guided by a commitment to systemic-level change, not necessarily to markets and revenue models.

The authors take a wide, diverse body of work and define it in an extremely narrow way. While it’s true that some may believe “that markets, not government, produce the best social and economic outcomes”, this is hardly the guiding principle behind Ashoka or the vast majority of approaches in our network of Ashoka Fellows.

Some social entrepreneurs work to create or improve markets, others work closely with government to improve the delivery of vital services, or to change the very government policies that guarantee those services. Many social entrepreneurs do both. Take Kailash Satyarthi, for example, an Ashoka Fellow since 1993 who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Kailash witnessed up close the pervasive use of illegal child labor in the rug manufacturing market — a problem that was largely unseen (or deliberately overlooked) both in countries like India and Afghanistan where rugs were made and in predominantly western markets where they were sold. His decades-long commitment to ending child labor led to an entirely new ‘child-labor free’ labeling system adopted across dozens of countries. Meanwhile he was instrumental in the movement to make free, compulsory education part of the Indian Constitution in 2009 because he realized that when children weren’t in school they were much more likely to be in factories.

Far from guided by a neoliberal belief in the unfettered market, his work was driven by the urgent need to build more ethical markets and seeded a global movement of conscientious consumerism that continues to grow and evolve to this day.

Like Kailash, the Ashoka Fellows in our network wake up every day thinking about how to reduce or eliminate deep, structural problems in society. We call them “entrepreneurs” not because they run businesses (with profit as a key goal) but because they have the vision, creativity, dedication and pragmatism to see the world 5–10 years ahead of everyone else and actually build the pathway to get us there.

We encourage the SSIR readers to go back to the terrific article by Martin & Osberg titled “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition” (Spring 2007). Key to their definition is the notion that social entrepreneurs are not content with developing a specific application of a new solution, but instead they are focused on “affecting the establishment of a new stable equilibrium that secures permanent benefit for the targeted group and society at large.”

2. Most Ashoka social entrepreneurs are concerned with “power” problems — including ones that originated (and are maintained) by a politics that is failing large groups of people.

Across continents and fields of work, Ashoka Fellows work to re-balance an equilibrium that currently perpetuates exclusion, injustice, and suffering. And rather than deliberately undermine the role of government and democratic voice, many Ashoka Fellows are doing the work they do in response to policies that hurt people or that have not been able to achieve an intended outcome.

Take for example the decades-long “tough on crime” philosophy that has thrived in all corners of the United States, from our urban centers to our small towns. The implications — in the form of mandatory minimum sentences and highly punitive (and unequal) drug-related penalties, among others — have wreaked havoc for more than a generation particular in communities of color. Only very recently has a broad public consensus emerged — with political support from both the left and the right — that our criminal justice system needs major reform.

In the meantime, Ashoka Fellows have worked in creative ways to address mass incarceration and shift the balance of power in our criminal justice system. Raj Jayadev, for example, has built a new body of work called “participatory defense” whereby the communities most affected by mass incarceration act as an extension of the legal defense team and shift the outcomes of cases as a result. Already their work has saved more than 4,000 years of cumulative prison time. Now they are pushing significant bail reform measures in California.

Or there is Ashoka Fellow Ai-jen Poo, founder of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the first organization of its kind to push for better labor conditions for this large and growing part of our workforce. Excluded from the National Labor Relations Act of the 1930s and from the Fair Labor Standards Act, domestic workers lack the basic labor protections and employment standards guaranteed to most workers in this country. Ai-jen’s civic and cultural movement — and yes, her entrepreneurial ability to see big moving pieces at the societal level and bring together unusual allies — led to the first ever Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York in 2014, and now similar bills in California, Illinois, Hawaii and beyond. Today through partnerships with Care.com, New America Foundation and a consortium of CEOs, Ai-Jen is also working to make paid parental leave a reality in the USA.

Family members of accused persons now have recognized ways to contribute to the defense of their loved ones — and help an overburdened public defense system in the process (photo from Silicon Valley Debug)

Social entrepreneurs like Raj and Ai-jen know well the importance of our political system, but they also understand that it often requires operating outside that system to push for innovative reform, prove that something works, and eventually build the political will to embed more permanent changes in our norms and laws. Most are eager to work with allies in the public sector who can help them marry innovation with the reach and accountability of government.

3. The hidden power of the social entrepreneur is in giving voice and creating broad pathways for civic action by all.

One of the most remarkable contributions that Ashoka Fellows make is to create roles for “ordinary” citizens to step up and become engaged in work for the good of all. At a time when many (especially in this country) are fed up with politics as usual, social entrepreneurs give people motivation and pathways to make a contribution as changemakers — often cutting through the political divide that is paralyzing our democracy.

The examples are many: truck drivers linking together as part of an early-warning system to detect human trafficking, surfers who collect ocean samples all over the world so we can better understand the presence and the implications of microplastics in our waters, women with incarcerated loved ones who find each other and build supportive networks that then advocacy for changes to the system. In every instance, the social entrepreneur’s power is only as strong as her ability to grow an idea much bigger than herself. This kind of leadership — guided by empathy and authenticity, and rooted in community — is the kind our Fellows model here in the U.S. and across the world.

The motto of Truckers Against Trafficking, an organization led by Kendis Paris, is “Everyday Heroes Needed” — and its success depends on truckers owning a piece of the mission. Once they do, they start seeing the world with a new sense of responsibility and purpose. This is the magic of social entrepreneurship that Ganz, Kay, and Spicer overlook. For 35 years now since the birth of the field, social entrepreneurs have shown time and again not just how to merge innovation with social change, but how to galvanize citizens across the world to step in and shape societies for the better. In a sense, they provide us with a blueprint for effective action when governments, the private sector, or even philanthropists let us down. The more of them there are, the more blueprints we have, the faster we can make problems go away, and the more confident we become when we face the next problem.

In the end, a major promise of social entrepreneurship is to help shape a world where problems don’t outrun solutions — and where all of us can contribute to the greater good. Ashoka calls this an “Everyone A Changemaker” world, and it is in fact our guiding vision. We imagine it would resonate with Ganz, Kay and Spicer because it is not as different from collective, democratic action as they make it sound. We hope that we can move toward strengthening our common direction and learn from each other as we continue to strive for transformation.