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The Business of Good: NYU Stern’s Conference of Social Entrepreneurs

By Tom Watson on April 26, 2007No Comment

The Business of Good: NYU Stern’s Conference of Social Entrepreneurs
By: Maria Nardell and Josh Moore, 4/26/07

It’s a popular buzz-word among philanthropists, corporate C.E.O.s, thought leaders, policy makers, and students alike, but what exactly is social entrepreneurship?  Its proponents call it an innovative international movement that applies business principles to social problems, emphasizing creativity and scalable impact for changing the world.  Some are more skeptical, suggesting that it is a fancy way of describing a century-long practice that is currently in vogue among a group of self-righteous elites from top-tier universities.

Two weeks after the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford, the NYU Stern’s Berkley Center for Entrepreneurial Studies held its Fourth Annual Conference of Social Entrepreneurs on April 12th and 13th to address some of the questions surrounding this topic.   Entitled “The Social Entrepreneurship Pipeline: Educating and Accelerating Emerging Social Entrepreneurship,” the two-day series of panels, speeches and workshops brought together one hundred leaders in the field.  Attendees and presenters ranged from the Nike and Skoll Foundations to the Manhattan and Aspen Institutes, and from Echoing Green’s Dr. Cheryl Dorsey to the Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana, Mitch Landrieu.

Defining the field

Though it has been nearly three decades since Bill Drayton, founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, coined the term “social entrepreneur,” social entrepreneurs continue to struggle with the very definition of their work and identity. 

One of the reasons why social entrepreneurship is such an undefined and exciting field is that it is so interdisciplinary.  Murray Low and Ian MacMilan wrote in 1988 that social entrepreneurship is intertwined with “management of change, innovation, technological and environmental turbulence, new product development, small business management, individualism and industry evolution… [and relates to] economics, sociology, finance, history, psychology, and anthropology.” 1 Today, the broad nature of social entrepreneurship continues to be one of its defining features, Low has noted in subsequent articles. 2

The problem with this inclusiveness, however, is that it can create confusion for those trying to distinguish between different types of projects in the social sector.  It also can cause social entrepreneurship to be taken less seriously as an academic field.  Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg have made a case for what social entrepreneurship is not: neither a social service provision (addressing a social problem in one local setting) nor social activism (influencing others to create change.)  For Martin and Osberg, social entrepreneurship has three distinguishing components: it identifies a social problem, sees an opportunity to address it through direct action, and achieves a large scale.

The question of defining social entrepreneurship and many are fed up with that debate is only the beginning of a complex set of issues facing social entrepreneurs as they navigate their role in the global community under the banner of a maturing field.  Several of these issues were addressed at the Stern conference, from the need for more diversity in the field to the importance of scalability and measurement.  Also discussed was the need for more education and networking for social entrepreneurs, as well as for developing and supporting more complete infrastructure for the field.

Educating future leaders

Stern Professor Jeffrey Robinson presented findings from his current research on the scope and prevalence of social entrepreneurship education worldwide, which indicated that although there is little research being done on the sector, there are a growing number now roughly 54 of academic institutions teaching social entrepreneurship.  Of these 54 programs, 69% are U.S.-based and 75% are in business schools.  Dr. Robinson’s research also found that only 32% of these programs had an explicit emphasis on teaching ethics and values as a component of social entrepreneurship. 

Investing in solutions

Social entrepreneurs and the foundations who invest in them must be selective in choosing projects in which to invest.  Individuals from New Profit, Inc., the Tiger Foundation, and the New York City Investment Fund agreed that investment decisions are based on social impact, strong management, and the ability to scale up programs.  Representatives from Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, the Acumen Fund, and Echoing Green discussed the importance of infrastructure development, greater capacity-building assistance, more human capital, and fitting solutions to the scale of the social problem.  Many panelists reiterated the point that for social entrepreneurs (and other nonprofit leaders) to attain any significant scale and impact, there is tremendous need not just for financial support but also for management and financial education. 

Diversity among social entrepreneurs

One challenge facing social entrepreneurship is what many consider to be a lack of diversity among those in the field, at least among those in the United States. While there is general consensus on the need for racial and ethnic diversity of social entrepreneurs within the United States, there is some debate on the need for greater international diversity.  While Ashoka: Innovators for the Public has more than 2000 social entrepreneur fellows from over 70 countries, Victor d’Allant, Executive Director of the Skoll Foundation’s resource and networking site,, stated that approximately half of SocialEdge’s readers are from outside the U.S., a percentage which he believes should be much higher given the global nature of the problems social entrepreneurs aim to address.

Despite the lack of global consensus, social entrepreneurship within the U.S. is sometimes considered a “privileged field,” surrounded by an aura of elites, MBAs, and young professionals with the time and money to contemplate the meaning of their field from the comforts of their own communities.  As Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu quipped in his keynote address, “I am sure you all know what social entrepreneurship is, but I don’t” and neither do many of the people social entrepreneurs serve.  More important than the meaning of the term, he pointed out, are the results that people actually achieve; and realizing those achievements requires drawing as many different kinds of individuals into the effort as possible.


Around the world, there are countless numbers of individuals, institutions, and communities entering the field of social entrepreneurship, each with their own stories, successes, and challenges, but many lack the networks and communications strategies to leverage their resources and receive attention and funding.  To this end, the Skoll Foundation launched in 2003 to form an online community where social entrepreneurs can connect, share resources, engage in dialog, and share best (and worst) practices.  Additionally, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, the Skoll Centre at Said Business School at Oxford, and the Social Enterprise Knowledge Network jointly formed the University Network for Social Entrepreneurship. Aimed at developing social entrepreneurship as a vocation and a field of academic research, the University Network has developed a global community of researchers, educators, student networks and practitioners.

Projects in action

For most, the best way to understand social entrepreneurship is to see it in action.  During the conference’s social venture fair, for-profit enterprises with social impact objectives were put on display.  One such venture is SmartVolunteer, an online platform that enables nonprofit organizations to post projects for which they need professional services and allows providers of such services to search and apply for volunteer projects that match their expertise, time availability, and personal interest.  Though it is a registered nonprofit organization that does not charge volunteers or nonprofits for the use of its services, SmartVolunteer is self-sustaining by charging for-profit corporations with highly-skilled employees for the right to use the SmartVolunteer website to offer volunteer opportunities to their employees and to have a mechanism to track employee contributions.

Next Steps

For all its demonstrated and potential benefits, some still wonder if social entrepreneurship, defined as a business model, can truly find market solutions to most problems traditionally tackled by nonprofit institutions.  What if social problems themselves are a product of market failure, existing in the domain where business has tried and failed to capitalize on the market potential?  What if nonprofits are simply institutions of wealth redistribution, operating in social spaces where there is no opportunity for wealth creation?  Questions to be answered, perhaps, at the next conference.





1. Low, Murray B. and Ian. C. MacMilan. (1988). “Entrepreneurship: Past Research and Future Challenges.” Journal of Management, 14:2, 139-161.
2. Low, Murray B. (2001). “The Adolescence of Entrepreneurship Research: Specification of Purpose.” Entrepreneurship: Theory and Practice, 25:4, 17-25.

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