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What is Social Entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurship is a broad and diverse practical social change movement that deploys innovative business skills and technologies to address the needs of those living in poverty. Social entrepreneurs are people or organizations that use economic and technological innovation to achieve social goals. They use entrepreneurial skills to create organizations that, instead of seeking profit, pursue a more just and humane society. Social entrepreneurship addresses essential human needs of the poor, such as those described by the UN Millennium Development Goals.

What Do Social Entrepreneurs (SEs) Do?

Social entrepreneurs create new organizations, new markets, and new ways of thinking and behaving in solidarity with poor communities to provide basic services, such as renewable energy, clean water, health care technologies, education, and access to financial services. SEs devise highly affordable products and services that can be bought by people living on a few dollars a day, and create businesses that can distribute these to poor communities. Many SEs come from the communities that they serve. Some SEs work with women and their specific socio-economic needs.

How Does Social Entrepreneurship Differ from Strategies to Address Human Needs?

The term "social entrepreneurship" is relatively new, but it builds upon centuries of transformative leadership. It developed as an alternative to traditional forms of international aid and social development. Many well-intentioned forms of international aid have had the perverse outcome of making communities more dependent upon external aid and poorer. Many government-led efforts to promote socio-economic development have caused negative environmental problems or been ineffective due to corruption and cronyism. Social entrepreneurs create capacity within these communities, over time, to meet their own needs. Social entrepreneurship takes on challenging social needs, stepping in where governments and aid organizations have failed. Some social enterprises succeed dramatically, but others fail. Understanding the conditions necessary for success is essential to furthering the work of this movement.

How Do Social Enterprises Use Technology?

Social entrepreneurs approach technology differently than most Americans, because they want to use them to disrupt the status quo. Technologies in this context must be frugal: extremely affordable, simple to use, and able to withstand rugged conditions. For example, mobile phones have been used to make health care consultation available to some communities for the first time ever. In another example, rugged solar charged lights have replaced dirty kerosene lanterns, improve indoor air quality, and made evening study for school possible. If SEs can marry the right technologies with the right business plan, dramatic improvements in people's lives and livelihoods becomes possible.

How Does the Center Advance Social Entrepreneurship with Technology?

The Center advances this field through its three programs: the Global Social Benefit Incubator, the Frugal Innovation Lab, and the Tech Awards. The alumni from these programs constitute our SE network. The Center's strategic focus is to link social entrepreneurship with frugal innovation using disruptive technologies. The Center does this in three sectors: renewable off-grid energy, technologies for public health, and clean water.

For a basic introduction to social entrepreneurship, see Dees, J. G. (1998), "The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship."