Ten Characteristics of Successful Social Entrepreneurs

WHAT CHARACTERISTICS do social and environmental entrepreneurs share? 

Capturing the common characteristics of such extraordinary, diverse people is tough, but here are some especially noteworthy qualities. 

Among other things, these entrepreneurs: 

•    Try to shrug off the constraints of ideology or discipline 
•    Identify and apply practical solutions to social problems, combining innovation, resourcefulness, and opportunity 
•    Innovate by finding a new product, a new service, or a new approach to a social problem 
•    Focus—first and foremost—on social value creation and, in that spirit, are willing to share their innovations and insights for others to replicate 
•    Jump in before ensuring they are fully resourced 
•    Have an unwavering belief in everyone’s innate capacity, often regardless of education, to contribute meaningfully to economic and social development 
•    Show a dogged determination that pushes them to take risks that others wouldn’t dare 
•    Balance their passion for change with a zeal to measure and monitor their impact 
•    Have a great deal to teach change makers in other sectors 
•    Display a healthy impatience (e.g., they don’t do well in bureaucracies, which can raise succession issues as their organizations grow—and almost inevitably become more bureaucratic) 

But as interest grows in trying to solve the world’s great social, environmental, and governance challenges, the definitions —and the boundaries between fields— blur. In the process, the field of social entrepreneurship has become “a truly immense tent into which all manner of socially beneficial activities may fit,” as two board members of the Skoll Foundation —Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management, and Sally Osberg, the foundation’s president and CEO— put it.

One result, inevitably, is confusion

So, they argue, the real measure of social entrepreneurship should be “direct action that generates a paradigm shift in the way a societal need is met.” What such people do, in effect, is to identify and attack an “unsatisfactory equilibrium.” Their endeavors are transformative, not palliative, with the power to catalyze and shape the future.


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