Want to change the world? Consider becoming a social entrepreneur

"Social entrepreneurs are people who recognize a need for change or improvement in a certain aspect of society and engineer their company to address this need."

There are countless personal reasons why entrepreneurs start new companies. Although most of these reasons stem from the desire for creative freedom, being one’s own boss and unlimited growth potential, money plays a crucial factor in any new commercial venture.

No matter how good your business looks on paper and to your friends, if nobody is buying what you’re selling, then there is no business. This is the daily challenge that all businesses must meet and the driving factor why so much money is poured into sales and marketing. We are surrounded by advertisements everywhere we look for a reason. Companies want your money, and they won’t stop until they get it!

But as students and recent grads, we know first-hand there just isn’t much money to go around. This is especially true now in tough economic times when most businesses are downsizing and good jobs are hard to come by. Taking care of Number 1 (yourself) is and should be your top priority.

But if you find yourself being concerned about the welfare of others as well, then there is a way to build your entrepreneurial skills without making money your company’s driving factor.

What other options are there?

Welcome to social entrepreneurship, where people come first and idealism is a requisite personality trait. Social entrepreneurs are essentially people who recognize a need for change or improvement in a certain aspect of society and engineer their company to address this need. They start charities and not-for-profit organizations with the sole intent of making the world a better place.

While commercial entrepreneurship is all about customers and profits, social entrepreneurship focuses on communities and change. Both require a high degree of commitment and creativity to be successful, in addition to skill at making use of limited resources. But the main benefit of starting a company with people instead of profit margins as your bottom line comes from knowing that you are making changes that will positively affect someone’s life.

All the tax cuts and incentives you’ll be eligible to receive for giving back certainly won’t hurt as well.

What kind of work do social entrepreneurs do?

Finding out who you are and what you’re really interested in may actually be the most important step in starting a social enterprise. As always, being passionate about what you’re doing is always the most important factor in achieving success. The good thing, however, is that you can literally let your imagination run wild with what you want to do in making a positive change.

This list compiled by Fast Company shows social entrepreneurs have already started tackling diverse problems such as homelessness, pollution and income inequity in a variety of ways. Some use art or technology, while others rely only on donations to achieve their company’s mission. How you choose to make a difference is totally up to you.

Who you want to help is also an important factor, as the scope of social and environmental problems can range from local to global. For example, to fight illiteracy do you want to send books to a small, rural community half way across the world, or instead set up a local community service to teach adults literacy skills?

What are some examples of social entrepreneurs?

To get an idea of how social entrepreneurs are tackling global problems like poverty, check out Kiva, where a creative micro-lending structure enables you to fund entrepreneurs from impoverished communities worldwide who would otherwise not be able finance their business. It’s good example of how fighting a universal problem like poverty can be attempted one person at a time.

Essentially, social entrepreneurs are people who start companies with the intent of changing the world in a small but significant way. How and what is accomplished along the way is completely up to the time and effort invested.

How do I get started?

So, if you’re thinking of taking on the challenge of running your own company while extending a helping hand to someone you don’t know, consider social entrepreneurship. It’s one sector where they’re always looking for new people and you can’t really fail by trying.

Check out Ashoka, “the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs,” and the Canadian Social Entrepreneurship Foundation (CSEF) for more information and inspiration.

About the author

Will Moniz is a recent graduate of McMaster University's biology program and his career goals include urban planning and environmental management.