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Social Entrepreneurs: Taking On World Problems

Yes, You Can Help The World And Make Money At The Same Time

A woman cultivates seaweed off the coast of Madagascar to counter overfishing. She's working with Blue Ventures, a business that supports its conservation projects by giving ecotours. Courtesy of Skoll Foundation hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Skoll Foundation

A woman cultivates seaweed off the coast of Madagascar to counter overfishing. She's working with Blue Ventures, a business that supports its conservation projects by giving ecotours.

Courtesy of Skoll Foundation

What do you call someone who runs a successful business that aims to make the world a better place? A CEO with a conscience? A do-good bottom-liner?

At the Skoll World Forum this week in Oxford, England, the preferred term is social entrepreneur. In fact, the conference is completely devoted to the idea — and promoting its rising stars.

Young entrepreneurs are invited to join veterans for workshops, talks and confabs. Awards are given for "social entrepreneurship."

Everybody at the conference knows what the phrase social entrepreneur means. It's someone who had an innovative idea that will help people, but the project will sustain itself financially. That is, the do-gooder effort will generate income to support itself. So it's not charity.

An Indian woman in the village of Rajasthan holds up a photo of what the hillside behind her once looked like. The organization Foundation for Ecological Security improves public land so it can be a better place for growing food. Courtesy of Skoll Foundation hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Skoll Foundation

An Indian woman in the village of Rajasthan holds up a photo of what the hillside behind her once looked like. The organization Foundation for Ecological Security improves public land so it can be a better place for growing food.

Courtesy of Skoll Foundation

That's more or less what a social entrepreneur does. Still, it's not the kind of term that's in the average person's vocabulary. And it seems a bit like jargon. You know? One of those words people toss around but never really think about what it means.

I thought it would be interesting to ask a few of the social entrepreneurs at the Skoll conference what they think of the term — and if they have any other label they might prefer.

Alasdair Harris is one of this year's recipients of the Skoll awards for social entrepreneurship. He's a marine scientist from London who wants to save the oceans from pollution and overfishing. But he recognized early on that doing research and writing papers wasn't going to make much of a dent, so he turned entrepreneurial.

His organization, Blue Ventures, encourages communities in Madagascar to stop overfishing. By cordoning off parts of octopus-fishing waters for a spell, the octopi increase their numbers in the waters. And that means people can fish again for a spell and raise their income.

Many social entrepreneurs focus on improving education around the world. The organization Educate Girls, founded by Skoll awardee Safeena Husain, helps ensure more girls in rural India — like the ones here in Rajasthan — go to school and stay there. Courtesy of Skoll Foundation hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Skoll Foundation

Many social entrepreneurs focus on improving education around the world. The organization Educate Girls, founded by Skoll awardee Safeena Husain, helps ensure more girls in rural India — like the ones here in Rajasthan — go to school and stay there.

Courtesy of Skoll Foundation

Blue Ventures earns money to run its environmental efforts by offering ecotours. And Blue Ventures doesn't just help the community manage its fisheries. It has started family planning and maternal health services with some of the money it makes. So it's very social — and very entrepreneurial.

I asked Harris, a strapping 36-year-old Brit, about the term social entrepreneur. He says he thinks of himself as disrupting the status quo for the better. And he likes the idea of doing it with an eye on the bottom line.

So Harris prefers the term "change sustainers." In other words, "We try to drive change that can sustain itself," he says. "That's what I think I'm doing."

Entrepreneur Jagdeesh Rao Puppula is definitely disrupting status quo. Puppula does so much disruption that he has had stones cast upon him for his work in India.

Puppula's organization, Foundation for Ecological Security, tries to protect public land that has been neglected, so it can be a better place for raising animals and growing food. When he presented his idea in one village, guys who used the common land to distill liquor illegally didn't want to lose their haven. So they tossed rocks at him. They missed.

But Puppula has hit his targets. His organization earned an award for helping villagers "secure community rights to publicly owned land and support regulations to manage it in a more sustainable and productive way." The foundation helps villagers improve the soil, water and other conditions in what had been regarded as wasteland. So they're able to grow more crops and bring in more revenue. Wildlife benefits, as well, from the changes.

Like Harris, Puppula isn't so sure about the label social entrepreneur. "I'm a social ecological energizer," says the bearded 52-year-old, who lives in Anand, India.

Still curious to learn more about energizers and change sustainers, I ran the phrase social entrepreneur past one more Skoll attendee.

Jan Matern, 26, is from London. His company, Emerge Education, offers a three-month training program for startups that want to use technology to improve teaching and schools around the world. So he's a social entrepreneur. Or is he?

"I hate the label," Matern says. If social entrepreneurs are good guys, he asks, does that mean that other entrepreneurs have license to be unethical, or to think just of making money for themselves and nothing more?

"All the label means is that you have the attitude of a morally good person," Matern says. He also worries that the label will make outsiders think that perhaps a social entrepreneur's business is not financially viable because how could you do good and still pay attention to the bottom line?

All this got me thinking: Maybe the world would be a better place if all entrepreneurs think of social good as part of their business plan. But until that utopia arrives, maybe the phrase "social entrepreneur" is the best way to describe ... social entrepreneurs.

All you social entrepreneurs reading this story — let us know your thoughts about the label and if you have a better way to describe what you do.

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