Why Social Entrepreneurship Matters Now More Than Ever
Excerpted from The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People Who Want to Change the World by our Co-Founder Madeleine Shaw
Social entrepreneurship as a concept has been around since the 1980s. The “social” part is shorthand for positive social and/or environmental impact. (There really is no separating them!) Under this approach, the core motivation for undertaking an initiative is to make the world a better place in some way.
I was first introduced to this type of thinking via The Body Shop, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, and Patagonia. While these are large-scale examples, they were much smaller when they started in the 1980s and stood in stark contrast to the “greed is good” ethos of the day, as epitomized by the film Wall Street. They were remarkable in their approach and made a deep impression on me, all the more so as someone who came of age in an era characterized by conspicuous consumption and little regard for social and environmental consequences. These businesses were unique in that their charismatic founders genuinely wanted to do business in an explicitly progressive manner, finding creative ways to integrate initiatives like opposing animal testing, promoting environmental stewardship, and offering in-house child care as part of their basic value propositions and business processes.
In building their businesses this way, these founders—Anita Roddick, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, and Yvon Chouinard—gave their customers the ability to use their purchasing power to support meaningful social and environmental change. These founders also shared the characteristic of coming from a non-traditional business background. Roddick was a mom looking for a sustainable way to support her daughters while her husband worked abroad; Cohen was a college dropout and Greenfield worked as a lab technician; and Chouinard was a rock climber and outdoor enthusiast. They also did not start their ventures with the primary aim of growing massive, internationally recognized brands; rather, their goals were to offer innovative people and planet-friendly solutions above all else. They were ordinary people who used the tools of business in service of the greater good.
The decades since have practically seen a revolution around environmentalism and other forms of social change activism, and how they intersect with entrepreneurship. In response to concerns about climate change, plastic pollution and JEDI (justice, equity, diversity & inclusion) on teams and in policies, consumers like you began demanding explicit and verifiable commitments to social and environmental justice from the organizations that you buy from and donate to. Some of the best-known, largest for-profit companies currently attempting to do this creatively (with mixed results, I should add—good intentions are not enough to actually ensure doing good - a topic covered at length later in the book) include TOMS shoes, Warby Parker, and Seventh Generation. Organizations like B Lab—a nonprofit that rigorously evaluates and ranks businesses’ overall social and environmental impact and certifies those that pass as B Corporations (known as B Corps for short, of which Aisle proudly counts itself as a founding Canadian member since 2012)—have arisen in order to create community, ensure transparency, and fight greenwashing.
Although large companies like these have the reach to affect more widespread change, to me, social entrepreneurship at the grassroots level represents the most potent means of remaking capitalism itself. We are small but mighty, nimble, creative, and canny. I realize that this may sound a bit grandiose, but imagine for a moment that you and everyone who has ever had the inkling of a social impact initiative actually went for it: it would literally change the world.
I firmly believe that it’s time for all initiatives of all sizes to prioritize tackling social and environmental issues as their primary raison d’être. This is not just about taking some of the profits of a mainstream business and then giving back (as laudable as that can be), and it’s no accident that “social” comes before “entrepreneurship”: I am advocating for impact as the whole point, not as a nice-to-have. I also believe that it’s time to recognize the value of projects and ventures of all sizes, not just those with the capacity to scale. (Scale, as readers of the book will see, is something that I am borderline obsessed with unpacking and reimagining.)
To date, scale—often even over profitability in recent years—has been the principal measure of successful organizational growth, with a focus on performance indicators like sales and number of customers. But should these metrics be the main or only ones? What about social and environmental impact: shouldn’t these constitute part of how we evaluate and define success?
I started writing this book shortly before COVID-19 hit. Initially, I wondered whether it should be put on hold until the pandemic was over; then I realized that “over” was likely not going to be definitive, and if anything, the book’s core message—essentially, do what you can with what you’ve got to make the world a better place where you are—was going to be more relevant than ever as we moved into a “new normal” (or as I like to think of it, “post-normal”). Sensing that our very definition of things like “normal,” “work,” “opportunity,” “resources,” and “community” were never going to be the same again, I decided to double down and recommit to seeing it through.
I think you’ll agree that we find ourselves in a time of global reckoning. The structural and social flaws that existed before COVID-19 and George Floyd’s murder were already there—there just needed to be a spark cast upon a bone-dry forest for the flames to erupt. Everything that wasn’t working before has now been exposed and exacerbated.
As I see it, widespread social enterprise in all its forms has the potential to become a global paradigm for building a better future, if we can just let go of the assumption that bigger is necessarily better. To be clear, assuming that a venture has social impact embedded at its core, scaling it necessarily increases its benefit; what I am pointing to here specifically is an argument for there being more mission-driven initiatives started by a far more inclusive group of founders, rather than fewer, scale-driven entities.
Which brings me to you, wonderful ‘everyday’ person who wants to change the world. Let’s do this, together. My feeling is that when we include everyone, especially those who have been marginalized or are underrepresented, we start to see the most healing, innovative, and game-changing ideas emerge. It’s an opportunity to redefine ourselves and what matters to us in order to move into a new era of inclusion, creativity, and values-driven entrepreneurial practices. As famously put by the beloved author Arundhati Roy, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” Today, this post-COVID world, metaphorically speaking, is that quiet day. This is a time of immense possibility and potential.
So, here is my invitation: join me in exploring what it takes to open yourself up to acting as a change maker. My book is for anyone who has ever felt scared, frustrated, or overwhelmed over the challenges of our times, from a global pandemic, climate change and other environmental issues, to racial, gender, and economic inequality. We have all had the experience of wishing that someone would just do something about the thing that angers or oppresses us, or imagined how great it would be if a certain thing existed.
Perhaps you have experienced having your back against the wall and needed to adapt to changing circumstances. Maybe you’ve had a full-blown vision, but told yourself that you weren’t the right person, or didn’t have time, or were unqualified to achieve it. Or maybe you just wanted to make a difference but weren’t sure how. The Greater Good is for you.