Faculty Perspectives: Can Anyone Be a Social Entrepreneur?

Nelson Pizarro and Toska Olson

Nelson Pizarro and Toska Olson


Entrepreneurs are made, not born. Entrepreneurship is a very broad term. However, there is an assumption that an entrepreneur is a person who only starts a business. Furthermore, it is associated with capitalism and individual success. But in reality, the term entrepreneur has a long history and richer meaning. In French, where the term was originated, entrepreneur means someone who undertakes a significant project or activity. French economists used the term to identify the venturesome individuals who stimulated economic progress by finding new and better ways of doing things. Other disciplines, such as management, define it differently; e.g., Peter Drucker defines an entrepreneur as someone that always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity. This to me indicates that entrepreneurship is a mindset and that it is applicable in any context by anyone. Therefore, it is a behavior that can be learned—anyone can be an entrepreneur.

If we focus on the meaning of entrepreneurship in French, that someone could be anyone and be anywhere at any time. For example, social entrepreneurs direct their passion and skills toward social goals. And under social entrepreneurship, Muhammad Yunus asserts that there is a new concept emerging—“social businesses”— a new way to do business. There are entrepreneurs working through governmental organizations, such as John Muir, or in academia, like the founders of Evergreen, or in the health industry, like Paul Farmer. These entrepreneurs were inspired by other entrepreneurs—they learned to think and act as their predecessors. For me, my mother was my inspiration and as a result, I started my first business at the age of ten— selling ice cream.

– Nelson Pizarro is a faculty member in business and entrepreneurship.

Counter Point

I agree that everyone has the capacity to become a social entrepreneur, which I define as someone who works to address social and environmental problems using entrepreneurial principles, but who measures his/ her success based on social impact rather than profit. However, not everyone will be a successful or persistent social entrepreneur. David Bornstein’s case studies, for example, illustrate the years of preparation and the personal sacrifices that many social entrepreneurs accept as they work for the social good. The individuals who are willing to learn how to set solid boundaries and engage in effective self-care are the people who will be able to sustain their work over the long haul.

Of course, many people do make significant, positive changes in a short time span. I have seen several students contribute passionately to social justice efforts for a short time, but then burn out because they lack self-leadership and self-care skills. How many of us put self-care first in our daily lives? What consequences does this have for our own well-being, and how detrimental is it for the quality of our work? All of us should keep these questions in mind, but social entrepreneurs must keep these questions at the forefront when working for the betterment of humanity and the environment. Successful, persistent social entrepreneurs must be self-aware enough to acknowledge the personal impact of seeing others’ suffering, and be willing and able to care for themselves while they are caring for others (see Laurah van Dernoot Lipsky’s Trauma Stewardship, 2007). To do otherwise is to risk experiencing compassion fatigue and burnout.

– Toska Olson is a faculty member in sociology, anthropology and feminist studies.