The essence of social entrepreneurship has unfortunately largely been misunderstood in the past. At its heart it is an approach to social and environmental problems, which combines innovation and opportunity just the way any entrepreneur would. The difference is that the primary purpose is not profit maximisation for shareholders but using revenues generated to drive transformational social change. Put very simply, I see it as what you get when you combine Richard Branson and Mother Teresa.
I have always been interested in entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Looking back, I think this is largely due to my upbringing in Latin America. Living there for the first 17 years of my life gave me an enormous respect for the poor and their incredible ingenuity in finding solutions even when severely resource constrained. I never felt sorry for them but instead in awe of the things I saw them do and create. These people were true entrepreneurs.
After joining The World Health Organisation (WHO) in the late 1970s, I once again experienced the ingenuity and innovation of entrepreneurs. It was a fascinating time as South America’s dictators were being overthrown and the shoots of democracy were beginning to take hold. Grassroots organisations working to tackle some of the serious problems their societies faced were mushrooming. By partnering with them, organisations such as WHO could more effectively achieve their mission.
I then had an opportunity to join The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and began to experience the awakening of the corporate community to the importance of social entrepreneurship. Each year at the World Economic Forum business leaders were becoming more and more interested in social enterprise.
However, I realised that to drive change in business, the key was to educate future business leaders, and I started to teach a course about social entrepreneurship at Columbia University’s Business School. By then, I had already heard about the Skoll Foundation, which was started in 2001 by Jeff Skoll, the first President of eBay, with a view to creating a more sustainable, peaceful and prosperous world. He felt social entrepreneurs were key in making this happen and he wanted to help them. Several years later in 2003, Jeff provided the funds that started the Skoll Centre at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.
Since 2004, the Centre has supported up to five scholarships annually for social entrepreneurs who wish to undertake the one year MBA programme, and then in 2009, given the exponential rise in interest, we created the Skoll Centre Associate Fellows Programme, a year long leadership and community building programme. Initially, the Associate Fellows were only MBAs, but this year we have included Rhodes Scholars and we hope to gradually widen its reach across the university.
I don’t believe that you can teach entrepreneurship – but you can learn to be more entrepreneurial by being around other entrepreneurs, by seeing the world through their eyes, by being inspired by the positive changes they are making to our society and the environment. Learning via inspiration is key and we organise seminars and lectures given by social entrepreneurs such as Kresse Wesling whose company, Elvis & Kresse, is creating high-quality, beautiful crafted accessories from waste.
What I hope will happen is that every entrepreneur will one day be a social entrepreneur because it will not be possible to separate how one makes money from how ones does the right thing by society. The dichotomisation of making money and doing the right thing is exactly what is causing the problems we face in society today. One of the greatest challenges we face is how to change the systems and institutions that are so entrenched in this way of thinking.
In spite of this, I am enormously hopeful for the future. Over the years, I have watched this movement go from strength to strength. If there is one thing that I feel most privileged about, it is the extraordinary people I have been lucky enough to interact and work with, not least my incredible team at Skoll and of course the students with their phenomenal enthusiasm to create transformational change. Nothing can be more gratifying than this.
Desmond Tutu addresses delegates at Christ Church College, Oxford University
‘Put very simply, I see [social entrepeneurship] as what you get when you combine Richard Branson and Mother Teresa.’
Examples of Social Entrepreneurs:
Barefoot College in Rajasthan, India, is an extraordinary school founded by Bunker Roy in 1972, which teaches rural women and men – many of them illiterate – to become solar engineers, artisans, dentists and doctors in their own villages. Its mission is to provide basic services and solutions in rural communities with the objective of making them self-sufficient.
Thanks to 470 semi-literate Barefoot solar engineers (238 of them women) over 19,000 houses in 750 villages in 19 countries now have electricity generated by solar panels, saving about 100,000 litres of kerosene every month from polluting the environment. Over 300 Barefoot Water Engineers have made it possible to provide water for drinking and sanitation to 2.65 million rural children. www.barefootcollege.org
Elvis & Kresse’s beautifully crafted accessories are made by re-engineering seemingly useless waste. All their products are made from reclaimed materials that were otherwise on the way to landfill. Their Fire-Hose range of bags is made exclusively from genuine de-commissioned British fire brigade hoses, that are collected from various Fire Brigades across the UK. Every year, the company reclaims thousands of tonnes of waste and donates 50 per cent of their profit to charity.
Ciudad Saludable was founded in 2001 as a solution to the health and environmental problems caused by garbage in Peru. It involves local enterprises collecting and processing garbage: charging affordable fees, reducing waste volume in municipal landfills and generating more income by separating recyclables, spinning off additional microenterprises to produce compost and other marketable by-products.
Ciudad Saludable has organised over 1,500 waste collectors, creating employment and improving health and living conditions for over six million people living in rural and poor urban regions in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela and India. (www.ciudadsaludable.org)
Water For People partners with communities in developing countries to create sustainable, locally-maintained drinking water solutions and supports market-driven sanitation solutions, such as its Sanitation as a Business programme. Millions of dollars are wasted every year on tens of thousands of water systems around the world that break, become abandoned and prove to be unsustainable. Recognising the need to monitor water systems, Water for People developed Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW) which gives community members, partners, volunteers, and others the ability to record data from tens of thousands of water points around the world. This data is then displayed online to signal whether a project is up and running, broken, or on the verge of disrepair and requiring maintenance and helps track the status of water points for at least 10 years after implementation. www.waterforpeople.org
For further examples of social entrepreneurs go to
The Skoll Foundation drives large-scale change by investing in, connecting, and celebrating social entrepreneurs and other innovators dedicated to solving the world’s most pressing problems. (www.skollfoundation.org). The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School is a leading academic institution for the advancement of social entrepreneurship worldwide. The Skoll Centre fosters innovative social transformation through world-class education, knowledge creation, and collaboration. The centre invests in three key areas: 1) developing talent of future business leaders and social innovators 2) advancing scholarship, research and teaching of social entrepreneurship and 3) creating a global hub for key actors of social impact. It was founded in 2003 with a $7.5 million investment by the Skoll Foundation, the largest funding ever received by a business school for an international programme in social entrepreneurship. (www.skollcentre.org)
AS told to Emilia Hungerford, who received a first-class honours degree in Biochemistry from Edinburgh University, studied Medicine at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry before becoming a freelance journalist and environmentalist. After working for Vanity Fair, the Evening Standard and on a number of environmental documentaries, she started to conduct research in the environmental sector. Currently she is a research associate for Black Emerald, a ‘greentech’ investment bank.