This week I’m attending the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.  Thanks to their kind invitation, I’ll be blogging this week about my experiences here.  Having recently left my fellowship at the Shuttleworth Foundation and embraced the world of social entrepreneurship, it seems worth talking a little bit about what exactly a social entrepreneur is.

I have had a few raised eyebrows when I mention the term social entrepreneur.  As I came into the UK, the immigration officer at Heathrow couldn’t decide whether to be less impressed by my entry of social entrepreneur in the “Profession” category or by the fact that my main purpose in entering the U.K. was to “blog”.   By the time he’d finished I was beginning to wonder myself.

Friends and colleagues have also been curious about the term “social entrepreneur” wondering whether it isn’t simply a green-washing of filthy capitalism.

Well, it is true that the term is a bit woolly.  There are lots of people who have been doing great things without calling it social entrepreneurship.  Those people are now being claimed by the social entrepreneurship movement.  Ashoka have a list of early Social Entrepreneurs.  So what is it exactly?

Trusty Wikipedia says that a social entrepreneur “recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create and manage a venture to achieve social change.”  And what are entrepreneurial principles?  Wikipedia to the rescue again.  An entrepreneur “is a person who has possession of a new enterprise, venture or idea and is accountable for the inherent risks and the outcome.”

So those two issues seem to capture social entrepreneurship a) intentionally setting out to do something good in the world; and, b) putting yourself directly on the hook for the outcomes.  Now those are simple but not completely unproblematic ideas.  With respect to the first, I am reminded of Henry Thoreau who said:

If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.

Having been involved in international development and philanthropy for some years, I feel a shiver of recognition in the above quotation.  However, what I like about social entrepreneurship is that part b), putting yourself on the hook for the outcomes, is at least partially a cure for the woolly, good-intentions of part a).  An entrepreneur must sustain him/herself and their ability to do so is tested by demand for what they are creating.  At least that is how it is supposed to work.

I’m finding out all about that right now with my own social enterprise, Village Telco, whose success is currently being tested in the crucible of the marketplace.  This approach is not the answer for everything but I know from uncomfortable experience in the world of ICTs and development that a lot of pain and wasted resources might have been avoided by applying market principles earlier on.

So am I a convert?  Do I believe that business is the best answer to solving the most pressing problems?  No.  I think it’s complicated and any attempt to reduce things to simple axioms or models are doomed. But as George Box famously said, “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.  I am really enjoying exploring the useful model of social entrepreneurship in my new work.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data