I’ve always loved the inspiring, fancy, and ambiguous words that the social entrepreneurship sector uses to define itself. Here is a sample:

A social entrepreneur…

These words have captivated me because of the excitement about they inspire. They make me, and I imagine others in the sector, feel different, on the cutting edge, pioneering, important.

But after many a blank stare from people who hear the various definitions of social entrepreneurship, I’ve come to realize that those adjectives complicate and confuse what is actually a fairly simple concept. Words like ‘innovative’ and ‘global,’ at the end of the day, do not offer a clear, concrete picture of social entrepreneurship. They even may serve to alienate and exclude people. To bring some clarity to the concept, I propose that the field embrace an unadorned, truer definition of social entrepreneurship.

In its simplest form, social entrepreneurship is: the attempt to solve a social problem or fulfill a social need by starting a new initiative.

That’s it. At the end of the day, that’s what it is. Just like an entrepreneur starts a business, a social entrepreneur starts an initiative to solve a social problem. Significantly, this definition does not include the word ‘innovative.’ I have found through my research in the sector that the use of word ‘innovative’ does little more than arbitrary exclude some from the field. For example, the first person to sell fair trade coffee may be innovative, while the second is not. It also does not include phrasing similar to ‘global scale,’ which often leads to the field overlooking impressive local efforts that effect important community change. Both an oratorically gifted individual who aims to change international policy is just as much of a social entrepreneur as an organization starting a small, local grassroots initiative to address poverty in a single community.

To make the definition more concrete, below are some examples of social entrepreneurship.

  • Paul Farmer co-founded Partners in Health to treat “untreatable” health problems, such as multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, in poor communities around the world.
  • Jane Addams co-founded, in 1889, Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States.
  • Hannah Davis co-founded the Ghana Sustainable Aid Project to promote healthy and sustainable development in a rural village in Ghana.

At the end of the day, each of these individuals is attempting to solve social problems by starting new initiatives. They are all social entrepreneurs.