How Entrepreneurs Can Change the World

If you want to do something meaningful and help solve problems, social entrepreneurship may be for you.
Senior Scientist, Global Workplace Analytics (formerly Telework Research Network)
April 24, 2012

If you want to do something meaningful, and if you like working with others to solve problems, social entrepreneurship may be just what you’re looking for.

When his young cousin in New Orleans was struggling with math, Salman Khan in Boston decided to tutor her using the Internet. Soon other relatives, neighbors and even strangers were asking for help. So Khan created YouTube videos that were easy to share.

The short video lessons were so popular, and his “students” were so appreciative, that he quit his job as a stock analyst to become a social entrepreneur. He was determined to change the world. And he is doing that.

Kahn Academy has created more than 3,100 short videos and delivered more than 138 million free lessons on a host of subjects to kids and adults all over the world.

Kahn is not only changing how people learn, he’s making learning available to people who didn’t have the opportunity before.

What is a social entrepreneur?

Like most entrepreneurs, Kahn saw a need and used his entrepreneurial skills to create a solution. What makes him different, and what makes social entrepreneurs different, is their focus on bringing about change that benefits society. Rather than building profits or equity, social entrepreneurs build social value, although many have profited in the process.

What are their objectives?

Social entrepreneurs have created organizations and found financing for a range of causes. Here are just a few examples.

There are lots of other areas with problems that await solutions. Take your pick: animals, children, communication and media, education, energy, health, human rights, technology, transportation, waste management and water—just to name a few.

Can you become a social entrepreneur?

Becoming a successful entrepreneur takes innovation, inspiration, leadership, persistence, focus and, above all, an irrepressible passion for what you’re trying to do.

If you already have a business, you can create a branch to help a social cause. If you’re an aspiring business owner you can build a business from the ground up around social good.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship has a variety of resources to help start you on your way. For inspiration, try the 2005 PBS series on social entrepreneurship, The New Heroes. The PBS website offers video clips from the series and an excellent list of other resources, including links to funding sources such as The Skoll Foundation that invests in social-change agents.

If you don’t have the time or inclination to make a social cause your vocation, you can help others make a difference as a volunteer, contributor or sponsor.

How to get started

Starting a business that focuses on social good is no different than starting any other business. You need to marshal the following elements, in order of importance.

  • A clear understanding of a need.
  • A well-formed plan for how you will reach people with that need.
  • An idea for a product or service to meet the need.
  • Financing to support the effort.

Historically, foundations have provided the majority of funding for non-profit organizations devoted to social good. But recently, cloud funding has become an effective alternative. And there’s nothing that says a social entrepreneur can’t make money, too.

Amazing changes are possible when innovation and a passion for making a difference come together.

Tom Harnish is a serial entrepreneur. He learned what works (and what doesn't work) by leading projects, products and companies to success. He can't play a lot of musical instruments.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Senior Scientist, Global Workplace Analytics (formerly Telework Research Network)