I have a confession to make. While I love the field of social entrepreneurship, I hate the term “Social Entrepreneur.” I know, Mr. Skoll, I send my apologies…
Now admittedly, I’m one of those annoying people who believe that the subtleties of word choice deeply influence our subconscious. I believe that the norms we establish around words and terminologies has a powerful effect on the way we process, deconstruct, and act within our world. And thus I believe that one of our sector’s predominant labels deserves some critical examination.
So…“Social Entrepreneur.” On first glance it seems so appropriate – for years the social sector has tried to battle the impression that we are all just tree-hugging, Gandhi-loving technophiles with an abundance of good intentions but a serious shortage of execution and acumen. For those of us who hate hearing, “Oh, that must be really rewarding,” when we tell people we work in the social change sector, using a more serious-sounding term like entrepreneur is very appealing. The growth of social entrepreneurship as a movement that values efficiency and results has powerfully improved the state of social change. And yet when it is all so often revolved around one almighty Social Entrepreneur, what is lost?
My concern with the label “Social Entrepreneur” is that it’s ego-flaming at best, and sector-defeating at worst. In a business setting, the label entrepreneur is, by definition, person-centric. It draws the attention not to the specific enterprise that is being created but to the person doing to the creating. It subtly affirms the notion (however accurate) that it’s the specific traits of a specific individual that matter to the success or failure of a venture. In short, it’s all about you. We Americans love that, don’t we? When it comes to traditional profit-only business, no harm no foul. Calling Steve Jobs an entrepreneur if anything only reaffirms his desire to do what he was already doing – making money. It’s when you put the word “social” in front of “entrepreneur” that I think you run into some problems.
Why, you ask? First of all, doing something ‘social’ is inherently not about you. To be focused on social outcomes means taking a specific step away from the wealth-aggrandizing paradigm and into the world of shared returns. It’s making the leap from ‘me, me, me’ to ‘we, we, we.’
And yet, the mythology of The Social Entrepreneur revolves the whole story around the individual. Through a shrewd slight-of-hand, our attention is turned away from the collective movement and toward an individual onto whom a Hero’s Journey is imposed. The drama of such a tale is high, but at what cost? Kings and Queens are made, and many a speaking career launched…but what is sacrificed? What collective narrative, what real representation of holistic social change, what inclusive vision for proudly joining hands as small cogs in a big wheel?
I say let us embrace the field of social entrepreneurship and the multitude of tools it has brought to the discipline of social change. But let us not, through our need to glorify the individual, unconsciously belittle the efforts and impact of the coalitions of human beings behind all sustainable action. Social change is a team sport, isn’t it?