The Past, Present and Future of Social Entrepreneurship

Greg Dees

CASE Founder Greg Dees reflects on 10 years of CASE at Fuqua. This Q&A was originally posted on the Fuqua website in January 2013.

Social entrepreneurs are playing a key role in recognizing and resourcefully pursuing opportunities to create social value. They are putting in place innovative solutions to transform the education system and harnessing the power of technology to improve literacy. They are coming up with innovative ways to address some of our world’s pressing health challenges.

A foreign concept a decade ago, Fuqua has been at the forefront in defining social entrepreneurship through the work of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE). Research, student activities and engagement with the private and public sector are just a few ways in which CASE is leaving its mark on social entrepreneurship education and thought leadership.

Greg Dees, CASE Founder and Clinical Professor of Social Entrepreneurship at Fuqua, provided his thoughts on the state of social entrepreneurship – where it is has come from, how it is addressing challenges today and how it can generate even greater impact in the future.

Q: What is social entrepreneurship?  And what are the characteristics of social entrepreneurs?

In short, they are innovators who tackle social problems. Quoting author David Bornstein: “What business entrepreneurs are to the economy, social entrepreneurs are to social change. They are the driven, creative individuals who question the status quo, exploit new opportunities, refuse to give up, and remake the world for the better.”  

Social impact does not necessarily mean being a nonprofit.  Social entrepreneurship can occur in any organizational form – nonprofit, for-profit, hybrids, cooperatives, and more. The underlying characteristics include a primary mission and explicit commitment to create and sustain social or environmental impact while coming up with innovative and resourceful pursuit of solutions.

Q: Can you talk about the origins of CASE? Why did it start and what was the state of social entrepreneurship 10 years ago?

When CASE was founded, social entrepreneurship was still a new and emerging field of study. Of course the practice had been going on for a long time. Solutions that blended business ideas with social missions helped the field emerge. One such example was Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize winner who made it possible for the poor in Bangladesh to take out small loans through a peer-lending model at Grameen Bank. It also helped that organizations such as Bill Drayton’s Ashoka had been established to find and support social entrepreneurs.

While the practice was being advanced in creative ways, we lacked a deep understanding of the phenomenon: terminology was inconsistent and few were studying social entrepreneurship to derive lessons learned, develop frameworks and help them scale.  There were few business schools giving students the opportunity to learn about social entrepreneurship and build the skills that they needed to have an impact.  So, CASE was one of the answers to this.

Q: There is that ongoing debate that has lasted over the years about whether leaders are born or made? What about social entrepreneurs? Are social entrepreneurs born or made?

Different career paths pose different demands and naturally draw people who are comfortable with those demands. Social entrepreneurship is no different. Just like entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs are often comfortable taking and managing risks. The successful ones often have good instincts for identifying opportunities, adapting their ideas as they go, building relationships, etc.

But I also believe that anyone inclined to social entrepreneurship can be taught to do it better. No one is born understanding different legal forms of organization, alternative business model choices, various methods of market segmentation, the risks of various financing methods, etc. Budding social entrepreneurs can increase their chances of success by understanding their options and learning lessons from past social entrepreneurs who have had to grapple with questions like: How does the choice of business model and legal form affect long-term social impact and scalability? What are the alternative paths to scaling impact? How should social ventures measure success?

In addition, we at CASE don’t believe that it is our singular role to produce students who launch social ventures.  Because social entrepreneurship is a team sport – we need the entrepreneur with the idea and the drive, but we also need skilled managers to help a social venture scale; consultants to advise and build capacity; investors who know how to look at financial and social impact; innovative government officials who can build the most conducive regulatory environment and support structures, and many more.  We want to educate students for all of these roles.

Q: What are some of the keys to educating students who want to become social entrepreneurs or have roles in the broader social entrepreneurship ecosystem?

I believe it is important to expose them to a balanced program where they are able to learn frameworks and the theory of social entrepreneurship; where they look at case studies (both successful and unsuccessful); learn the skills needed to run and grow ventures; and, have some experiential components where they can practice their skills working on real world social issues.

We must also teach the students to think within the larger context of social change.  There is an art to creating sustainable, appropriate and effective social change without having unintended consequences along the way. And there is also a level of emotional intelligence and empathy that we have to help students refine.  Social entrepreneurs may well need to partner with others to have large-scale or widespread impact on an issue or problem.  They may have to change the social ecosystems in which they operate.  This can rarely be done single handedly.

Q: What are some of the most significant trends you have noticed in social entrepreneurship over the years?

Well, clearly the growth and acceptance of the field.  Back when CASE began “social entrepreneurship” was not a well-known term.  Now, if you search for “social entrepreneur” on Google, you’ll find millions of hits.

We are seeing an interest in “market-based” solutions to social problems. This is driven not only by a belief in the strength of markets, but by pressure on government funding and realism about the limits of philanthropy. This has led to increasing creativity around types of business models being used for social impact.  An example would be the emergence of B Corporations (for-profit companies that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency), innovative hybrid models, and others.  It is also associated with the rise of what is now being called “Impact Investing,” meaning investing for both financial and social return. We have even launched a CASE Impact Investing Initiative (CASE i3) under the leadership of Cathy Clark.

We are also seeing a stronger push for more rigorous evaluation of social impact, including a push, when possible for random controlled trials (RCTs) similar to those used to test new drugs. This type of work is so important-we need rigor around understanding social impact.

Finally, we are seeing experiments with new technologies, ranging from educational ventures, such as One Laptop Per Child to the use of mobile phones to reinforce health care, in the arena of M-Health. The rapid spread of mobile phones in developing countries has opened new possibilities in education, agriculture, health, and a variety of other areas.

Q: What are some of CASE’s greatest achievements over the years?

My colleague at CASE, Matt Nash, highlights our top 10 achievements in the following video. I wanted to note three areas.

First, is our intellectual leadership particularly on scaling social impact and now impact investing that has been made possible by the many amazing partnerships that we have developed over the years. We have tried to be intensely collaborative, knowing that the issues that we are working to solve are at a magnitude that one player could never solve alone. We have learned a great deal from and with our partners.

Secondly, is the increasing student engagement in these issues.  We went from having a student body largely unfamiliar with the field, to significant numbers of students coming to Fuqua specifically for our social entrepreneurship programming.

And finally, our most recent achievement is that CASE and our partners at Duke have just received a $10M five-year cooperative agreement from USAID to launch the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke (SEAD).  Through SEAD we will identify, support the growth of, and facilitate investments in proven innovations in healthcare delivery and preventive services in developing countries around the world.

Q: What do you see as the opportunities or challenges for CASE in the upcoming years?

For CASE’s first 10 years, we were focused on helping to build the field of social entrepreneurship. We helped individual social ventures grow and learned from their successes and failures.

For the next 10 years, I think there is a great opportunity to broaden our research and teaching agenda to focus not only on the social entrepreneur and individual ventures, but to help build the environment around them.  Social entrepreneurs do not stand alone. Without appropriate support structures in place, there will be fragmented solutions that don’t add up to long term social impact.

Some of the support structures are starting to emerge, such as B Corporations, impact investing, and more rigorous evaluation methodologies.  CASE is working on many of these efforts, including our launch of the CASE Initiative on Impact Investing (CASE i3).

We are also working hard to embed social impact thinking and education more broadly at Fuqua and throughout the university.  We are excited to work with Fuqua and Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative to ensure that all students are exposed to this way of thinking, whether they pursue careers in the field or not.

Additional resources:
– Greg Dees’ article defining social entrepreneurship.
– Blog: Reflections and Insights on Teaching Social Entrepreneurship.
– Greg Dees’ talk about the “open solutions society“.
– More on CASE.