Theory of Social Entrepreneurship

AC4D is a different kind of school. We quickly realized on day 1 of student orientation that we were all here to work toward social impact. There weren’t going to be endless discussions about whether or not we should be “doing good” because it was pre-defined and a given in all of us as AC4D students. As Steve Portigal observed after guest lecturing:

The school is focusing on applying design to social change, but the discussion is about the problem solving power of design – to understand, reframe, and innovate, rather than an excess of earnestness or worrying. I suspect their point of view is maybe what you could call post-worldchanging…of course you want to address homelessness, let’s use the tools we’ve got to look at it.

We can’t just talk the talk; we have to walk the walk.

The great thing about the mix of method and theory classes we’ve been getting in Interaction Design is that we can both walk the walk while being able to talk the talk. We are able to frame our work within the larger context of the design community while understanding the history of what’s come before us.

We are missing the same kind of framing in the world of social entrepreneurship. We need a “Theory of Social Entrepreneurship” class to support our real work in the social enterprise space.

  • If the history of Xerox Park and Lisa and desktop publishing enrich our understanding of what is possible in our interaction designs today, the history of philanthropy and social finance and the sustainability movement give us a frame of what social entrepreneurship means in today’s world.
  • If we must read and engage in critical class debates about John Dewey and Richard Buchanan and Emily Pilloton to be able to attend IxD11 and not feel like a noob, we must also read and engage in critical class debates about Muhammad Yunus and Jacqueline Novogratz and Jeff Skoll to start to find our place in the SocEnt space as well.
  • Our stimulating discussions about the hot questions in design today (design with vs. design for; the role of technology in our lives) should be partnered with stimulating discussions about the hot questions in social entrepreneurship today (measuring impact; how does scale affect impact; passion vs. burn-out; legal structures and not getting sued by shareholders).

A couple of our classmates have been living in this stuff for the past couple of years and know how to talk in the language of social entrepreneurship. And while they were sometimes frustrated with the all talk and no walk of their previous SocEnt communities, we are now in danger of the opposite. I’m lucky enough to be able to pick their brains.

I’m starting to understand that SocEnt in the U.S. is different than its movement in Canada or the UK, and I’m starting to see why I’m still struggling to fit in. In other countries, SocEnt is tackling urban planning and local community issues. In the U.S., the SocEnt projects that get the most buzz and the most traction are targeting developing countries and the bottom of the pyramid. In other countries, SocEnt is tied to universities, research grants, and government money. In the U.S., our funding comes from VCs and philanthropic investment funds—and I’m not sure how funding of research (not just tech R&D) plays into it all yet. (Hope Lab is an interesting model: non-profit org that funds research and development, eventually spinning off social enterprises such as Zamzee.)

I’m wary of VC funds because I can’t guarantee 10x return if I’m operating a double- or triple-bottom-line business. My solution is to simply bypass it altogether (without much critical thought into the matter). I’m sure some debate and discussion would at least help me see my options more clearly.

I also believe that social enterprises and typical business ventures are different and require different types of incubation. Yes, they share the same backbones of business, and yes, fiscal sustainability is tantamount to success. But there are some new core questions that social entrepreneurs have to weave into their start-ups. How do you get your business off the ground while fueling your mission at the same time? How do you define success, and how to you measure that? How do you position yourself in the current marketplace? Cliché but: where is the line between you and your business, your passion and your investment?

Then throw in the questions that design brings to the picture of enterprise…let alone social enterprise. For most entrepreneurs, proof-of-concept and market validation typically come after you have a working beta, whereas designers create their products out of user research and synthesis and have to prove fiscal traction in addition to market validation.

Typically, we find MBAs with a business know-how searching for their passions; in SocEnt, we get reluctant innovators pursuing business know-how. Where do we interaction designer social entrepreneurs fit into these frameworks? We come at it from multiple sides, trying to make things meet in the middle. We’re making it up as we go along, as all adults do. Out of the frying pan into the fire.

Here are some examples of social enterprises that might provide some clues:

  • Tom’s Shoes
  • Catch a Fire (channel corporate employees to do pro bono consulting)
  • Ecojot (recycled paper notebooks)
  • Seventh Generation
  • Para Vida (coffee)
  • Better World Books
  • Good Capital (investment firm that invests in social)
  • Ben and Jerry’s business
  • Brand Aid Project
  • Root Capital
  • O Liberte (shoes)
  • Acumen Fund
  • Grameen Bank

Web sites where the debates are happening:

Books to whet your appetite:

  • David Borenstein: Social Enrepreneurship – What Everyone Needs to Know
  • Jacqueline Novogratz: The Blue Sweater


  • A Better World for Design
  • Harvard Social Enterprise Conference
  • re:Vision 2011
  • RISE

Incubators focused on social enterprises:

  • Unreasonable Institute
  • Good Company Ventures
  • Echoing Green Fellows

[Thanks to Hour School co-founder Ruby Ku for a lot of the above links and resources. In the spirit of Hour School’s mission to transform learners into teachers, I believe either she or Ryan Hubbard is fully capable of teaching a kick-ass course in IDSE 402: Theory of Social Entrepreneurship.]


Fantastic post! I could not agree more… well framed and well said… now let’s get that class set up – let me know how I can help.

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