I was asked today to outline the personality types of the typical social entrepreneur. Of course, anyone can be a social entrepreneur, and any entrepreneur (whether social or not) has to have vision, passion, risk tolerance, and an idea for a product or service for which there is—or can be—a market demand.
However, based upon my experience working with social entrepreneurs from the co-op sector, non-profit sector and from the private sector (primarily solo-preneurs), I can reflect on some categories of social entrepreneurs. Do any of these sound like you?
The social worker. Not necessarily a social worker by training, but more broadly a person working for a social cause. This person is characterized by a social mission that is paramount in their life and/or career. They typically work in the public or non-profit sector (and very possibly within a charity) and common passions include one of the following: environment/sustainability, recreation/health, victims of abuse or violence, youth development, homelessness/poverty, or individuals facing social stigma or barriers to employment (mental health, developmental delays, criminal records, etc). They may have years of experience and knowledge about the depth of the social problem that they’ve been tackling. They may not have business experience, but their knowledge of what needs to change, and how it needs to be changed, is significant; they typically are motivated to learn as much about business as they can to address the cause they believe in.
The Epiphanist. This is not a real word, of course, but this describes the person who, for whatever reason, has a moment in their life when they realize that they need to help others. (ie an epiphany) Perhaps they’ve been diagnosed or survived a disease or accident, maybe they met someone whose story or experience touched them, maybe they read a news article or a non-fiction book, or perhaps they heard a TED Talk or social media plea, or maybe they saw something unjust that struck them into action. The Epiphanist can be any age, and is strongly motivated to use whatever they know or have to make a difference. They have a professional network, but their peers and contacts may not always be sympathetic to their “new” cause. They may also have to initially learn about organizations and networks that are already active in this new field of endeavor, but they are typically willing to partner and learn from those with the experience of the Social Worker (above).
The Seeker is the one who wants to change the world, but initially didn’t know where to start. They might have read about social enterprise or seen a social enterprise in action and immediately felt that this is the career for them. They then set about methodically to learn more about business operations, and to confirm the cause for which they plan to work and make connections. They typically are young and may have come to social enterprise from their disillusionment with community, the economy, or their own career or educational path so far. Initially, The Seeker may lack business experience (and occasionally distrusts business generally), be impatient, and have a limited professional network. However, The Seeker feels they must do something important, tangible, and purposeful and is commonly quite driven to learn more, or even will take risks to test their business idea as soon as possible. They grow into the role of social entrepreneur out of that need for purpose.
The Serial Social Entrepreneur has started and run a social business and now wants to apply their experience to a new cause. These folks are rare in Canada as the number of successful social enterprises is limited. The Serial Social Entrepreneur is an expert in the process of building a social enterprise. They understand—through experience—the technical aspects of social business development such as market research, branding, pricing, retail operations, social metrics, partnership, and/or social finance options. They are able to transfer their business skills from one cause to another cause. They are passionate about social change, and they are aware that social change is complex and interrelated and they often have large and active professional networks.
The Maverick is the guy in high school who never spoke, but then created a mobility aid that made it possible to move a wheelchair up the front stairs. These are the inventors, the outliers, possibly the unsung geniuses of our time. They are sometimes reclusive, sometimes wildly gregarious, but often unpredictable and commonly irreverent. Mavericks make great (social) entrepreneurs, because they are “just crazy enough to try something new” without worrying about how it will affect their social status. Some even cultivate a sort of unique personality (Richard Branson?) which becomes an element of their “brand.” Mavericks can be any age, and are typically able to think of new ways of solving old problems. They occasionally struggle with collaboration and partnership, but they are the idea generators who then work diligently to bring their social innovation to life.
There are, of course, no rules about who can be a successful social entrepreneur, but in my experience social entrepreneurs are people who care about building a better society, and who see the selling of goods and/or services as a tool to support that goal. Social entrepreneurs can come from any sector, any socio-economic background, any cultural heritage, aged teen to elder. They possess an unscripted mix of idealism, pragmatism, flexibility and diligence. However, they are each very unique, and they are not as easily categorized as I have suggested in this post.