Behind the Scenes: Social Entrepreneurship at Work

business entrepreneur

When most people consider the future of work, they often talk about the impact of the so-called fourth industrial revolution and the changes created by the proliferation of artificial intelligence and automation. These technologies are of course transforming how work is done, and they will only continue to grow more important. However, one other field could also make a substantial impact on the future of work: social entrepreneurship.

What Is Social Entrepreneurship?

The basic idea behind social entrepreneurship could be summed up as “philanthropy, but with a profit.” Those interested in social entrepreneurship are looking to use their business to effect change, by solving social problems or addressing overlooked needs at the societal level. Most businesses are created to make a profit, but making money is not the only goal of the social entrepreneur—though social entrepreneurs do need to make money to ensure the long-term sustainability of their business.

Social entrepreneurs look for ways to make a real and measurable impact, whether that’s through creating a new product that solves a pressing problem or providing opportunities for a community. These entrepreneurs truly think big: they want to bring about systems- or community-level change. The term “social entrepreneurship” can encompass a wide variety of industries and applications, making it one of the more inclusive business terms today.

Consider the example of Bangladeshi banker and social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He established Grameen Bank and pioneered the concept of microfinance, the industry that provides small loans, credit, and other financial services to people too poor to afford traditional finance products from banks and other institutions. Microfinance has allowed people in developing countries to access the capital they need to start their own businesses and pull themselves out of poverty. Importantly, microfinance is not philanthropy—loan recipients must pay interest, and the lending organization is interested in profitability.

If the idea of a business existing for something other than profit sounds unrealistic to you, take note: making money and improving the world are not mutually exclusive pursuits. Any business can become more socially conscious with some adjustments to their practices. For example, manufacturers can adopt more sustainable packaging, or find new ways to reduce the raw material inputs in production. This strategy can also reduce costs significantly.

In fact, many traditional businesses are beginning to understand that some of the principles behind social entrepreneurship have the potential to improve their overall profits. Today’s consumers are looking for businesses that care about social justice and environmental sustainability. Companies that adopt socially conscious and environmentally friendly practices could see a substantial increase in both their customer base and profit margins.

Investors, too, are increasingly interested in social entrepreneurship. Socially conscious investors often look for new or existing businesses pursuing these goals, intending to use their assets to do more than just make money.

Creating Better Jobs

Inspired by social entrepreneurs, many businesses are now looking to alter their approach, even if they aren’t technically social enterprises nor looking to effect societal-level change. One way many are doing so is simply by creating better jobs and better environments for workers.

Now more than ever, people are looking to find a place to work that reflects their personal values. To them, work is more than just a job; it’s one of the ways they find meaning in their lives. These people are looking for a positive work environment and an organization that has an impact on the world. Companies can meet this need and stand out among other employers by providing not just work, but good work that pays a fair wage, engages people intellectually, and offers scope for professional development.

Technology Solving Societal Problems

There is another way that social entrepreneurship could become an integral part of the future of work. There’s always a lot of discussion and hang-wringing about the impact of technology on the workforce, particularly in its capacity to eliminate jobs and create new ones. However, what’s discussed less often is the potential impact technology could have on the world of social entrepreneurship. It could be possible for technological advancements, like artificial intelligence, automation, machine learning, and other innovations, to become useful in bridging societal gaps and prejudices, improving communities, and allowing for greater environmental sustainability.

There are several ways these technologies could be used to make a societal impact. For example, all businesses need a pool of good talent to draw from, but many are finding it difficult to find employees with the right skill sets. Traditional four-year universities can’t always keep up with the changing demands of the job market, and tuition and fees put these schools out of reach of many students. However, new startups are focused on bringing education directly to underserved populations, such as in coding bootcamps. Other social entrepreneurs are finding ways to bring resources to these populations, bridging the gaps in opportunity that are often found in lower-income communities.