In “How to do well by doing good”, we addressed the different ways in which people can give back to society.

The article focused on how to change communities in underdeveloped countries through social business.

In this article, we are going to approach social entrepreneurship from a different angle. How is social entrepreneurship defined and what are the boundaries of the concept?

Gregory Dees, Duke University professor, recognised internationally for developing the concept of “social entrepreneurship” as an academic field, writes in the study “The meaning of social entrepreneurship” that the concept is a combination of a passion for social causes and a desire to innovate and make an impact. It can be defined as “an entrepreneurial approach to social problems.”

It is perhaps easier to understand what the discipline entails if we start with the definition of the social entrepreneur.

The term "entrepreneur" was first used by Jean Baptiste Say in the 19th century. His definition goes as follows: “the entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity at greater yield.” The fact that entrepreneurs have been seen as the catalysts and innovators behind the economic progress has served as the foundation for the contemporary understanding of the term.  Social entrepreneurs engage in a continuous process of improvement and innovation. They are driven by passion, curiosity, energy and a strong desire to create things that matter.


Dees assigned the following characteristics to social entrepreneurs:

  • Work towards a mission to generate and sustain social change (not just my own company’s interest);

  • Relentlessly seize opportunities that will take me closer to my purpose;

  • Always in the process of continuous innovation, adaptation, and learning;

  • Not be limited in any way to pursue his or her mission;

  • Accepts the consequences of his or her doings.

These definitions coincide with the profiles of tech visionaries that through their revolutionary ideas materialised in technological breakthroughs created significant social change.  Can we consider Steve Jobs a social entrepreneur? According to Dee’s definition, yes. By creating a more intuitive and user-friendly interface, Jobs democratised access to personal computers.

In the field of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted and Andrew Jackson Downing, that designed some of the most well-known urban parks in New York are other examples of social entrepreneurs. Central Park was built in 1857, reflecting the social consciousness and egalitarian ideals of Olmsted, that members of different social classes from England, China and the American South were all welcome to enjoy the green space equally accessible to all citizens. This principle is fundamental for public parks nowadays, but at that time it was a struggle to preserve the idea.

Social entrepreneurship is not only about helping people in countries under development. It can also mean perfecting, refining, creating things a bit better for the benefit of the community.