What is social entrepreneurship?

By Marianne Sierocinski

What exactly is this “social entrepreneurship,” anyway? It’s a experiential-learning program that I had looked forward to participating in since my freshman year. It’s a process and a philosophy that I have found myself repeatedly sharing with those around me. It’s an approach to problem-solving that I believe has the potential to craft the kinds of solutions the 21st century needs.

Marianne in Wooster Nagar, India.

The exact definition of “social entrepreneur” often varies slightly between different programs and initiatives. Here is a sampling:

  • Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. — Ashoka Foundation
  • Social entrepreneurs act similarly [to entrepreneurs in the business world], tapping inspiration and creativity, courage and fortitude, to seize opportunities that challenge and forever change established, but fundamentally inequitable systems. — Skoll Foundation
  • Social entrepreneurs are society’s change agents and they seek creative, inventive, and sustainable approaches to seemingly intractable issues of our time, such as poverty, climate change, and global health. — Public Radio International (PRI)

At The College of Wooster, social entrepreneurship is the process of creative thinking, risk-taking, and analysis that creates opportunities with sustainable social and economic value. Since 2005, the SE program has worked to support non-profits in Wayne County, Ohio. This local SE program provides teams of students with the opportunity to act as consultants to these organizations, often aiding them to develop plans for a for-profit venture that would strengthen the clients’ ability to achieve their social mission. (Read about some early successes of the program here.)

Successful ventures that have been developed through Wooster’s SE program include:

  • Ridge Riders, supporting the Christian Children’s Home of Ohio (CCHO) in Wooster, OH
    Prior to partnering with SE, CCHO already provided equine therapy to disadvantaged children as part of its social mission. Working with the client, students devised a strategy to leverage CCHO’s equine-related assets and invest in a for-profit summer equine experience open to all members of the community. The summer equine experience now has a solid footing in the local summer camp space. (Read more here.)
  • Foxfield Preserve, supporting The Wilderness Center (TWC) in Wilmot, OH
    Students worked to develop a proposal for a “green cemetery” that “provides an economical, environmentally friendly alternative to modern burial.” Like other Wooster SE business plans, this service furthers the social mission of the organization while also providing a sustainable source of revenue. In fact, TWC Executive Director Gordon Maupin reported to the 2009 SE class that the green cemetery was one of the few revenue-generating operations helping to support the organization during the economic downturn, rasing more than $100,000 in revenue! (Read more here).

Overall, SE at Wooster has worked with 20 organizations since 2005. These student teams also work with clients to do more than just write business plans. For example, in 2008, a student team devised a corporate sponsorship model for the Viola Startzman Free Clinic (VSFC) in Wooster, OH. VSFC, which provides basic medical and dental services to low-income families, is the only free clinic in Wayne County.

SE has always been about experiential-learning — though I had yet to learn the pedagogical theory behind it, this is why I first became interested in participating in the program. Engaging in social entrepreneurship allows students to go beyond discussion, research, theory, writing: it allows us to engage in real-world problem solving. It’s the kind of collaborative, ground-level process of innovative problem solving which possesses the potential to enact positive change in communities around the world. (For some inspiring stories of SE in action, check out PRI’s Social Entrepreneurship podcast.)

This past semester, I helped write a proposal that would expand the scope of Wooster’s SE program to promote global engagement within this context of experiential-learning. Continue to Global Social Entreprenuership’s Program Vision…

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