What exactly is a social entrepreneur?

About 10 years ago, I felt like an NFL player when Dean Puto told me I had been traded from the Marketing Department to the Entrepreneurship Department. My first and most daunting challenge was learning to spell entrepreneurship. Is that “per” or “pre;” “eu” or “ue?” I imagine some of you went through the same transition when you discovered, or were told, that you were a social entrepreneur. You thought you were running a nonprofit. You knew your organization was attempting to solve the problems of poverty, disease and hunger, or provide literacy training or medical care to people, all to help resolve the social inequities we see every day in the world, and someone said “What you are doing is social entrepreneurship” and you had to figure how to spell it, too.

But proper spelling was just the beginning, wasn’t it? Next you asked yourself and those around you “What exactly is a social entrepreneur?” I avoided the question until St. Thomas announced we were hosting the 2009 Opus Prize. One of the principles of the Opus Prize is social entrepreneurship, and people were asking me about the social entrepreneurship activities of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship and the Opus College of Business. So I did some investigating, and found that social entrepreneurship includes a number of exciting and worthwhile activities.

The Opus Prize finalists were providing training and services to single women and their children in Morocco, another had founded clinics for people with addictions in 10 different countries, and the third cared and advocated for physically and mentally challenged kids in Columbia. I remembered as an undergraduate student we called what they were doing economic or socioeconomic development. Now we call it social entrepreneurship.

But it wasn’t that simple. Other people told me about entrepreneurs who include social values in their founding principles – a social values perspective that means these founders share their success by supporting organizations or engaging in activities that battle against the problems of society. Their employees volunteer their time, the firm makes significant resource donations and it is a core part of their business. That’s social entrepreneurship, version two.

But I also found experienced entrepreneurs using the entrepreneurial principles within traditional social service organizations as well as creating new structures to solve social problems. For example, some social problems were never talked about in “polite” company, but entrepreneurs know that if you want to get people to change their behaviors, you have to engage them in conversations, and reach them in new ways. These social entrepreneurs created messages to educate and galvanize to action audiences that had been unaware or uninterested and developed new delivery processes to reach people who needed this information or needed these services. Companies such as Design Wise Medical, a nonprofit company focusing on developing new pediatric medical devices that meet a significant need, do just that. Social entrepreneurship, version three.

And the last “type” of social entrepreneurship I discovered involved nonprofit organizations, where many of you come from: long-standing organizations and new ones that were established as non- or not-for-profit entities with the express purpose of addressing societal problems. You, too, are engaged in social entrepreneurship.

So to me, social entrepreneurship isn’t narrowly defined. The social challenges and problems we face today are complex, and won’t be solved by one approach. I know that there are many smart and talented social entrepreneurs dedicated to solving society’s problems.

Dr. Mark Spriggs, is an associate professor and the director of the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship.