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What is Social Entrepreneurship?

Jan 4, 2022
Turner Family Center Director Mario Avila breaks down social entrepreneurship

By Arial Starks

Social entrepreneurship is a growing area of focus across business schools as a greater share of incoming students seek career paths or education in areas surrounding social impact. We sat down with Turner Family Center (TFC) Director Mario Avila (MBA’12), who shares what it takes to launch a social enterprise and how success is measured in social entrepreneurship. 

Entrepreneurship vs. Social Entrepreneurship

Mario Avila, MBA'12, social entrepreneurship

Mario Avila

Entrepreneurship, in simple terms, is the act of setting up a business that provides a good or service with hopes to secure a profit. Social entrepreneurship also provides a good or service with the same hopes, but profits are usually directed towards what the business owner has identified as a social issue he/she wants to address. Both traditional entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs are typically passionate about whatever product or service they are providing, but social entrepreneurs’ passion lies more with finding solutions to social, environmental, or cultural challenges in the world.

“Unlike a traditional entrepreneur that focuses on some sort of market inefficiency, a social entrepreneur is also solving a societal issue that they’re trying to address. The majority of the time it is a lived or shared experience where they’ve traveled and experienced something that they’re uncomfortable with; they are saying ‘this is wrong, and I want to fix it,’” says Avila. 

Avila also points out that social enterprises can be compared to non-profit organizations – they are both mission-first – but their structures and operating models differ.

I think one of the key misconceptions is that social entrepreneurs are only launching cool tech start-ups that are trying to solve issues, and we often don’t refer to those in the non-profit sector as social entrepreneurs, when the reality is that they are the ones who have been doing it the longest,” says Avila. “It’s really this transition of going from a traditional non-profit-funded model to using business models to affect that change and drive revenue to our organizations to provide solutions for the beneficiaries.”  

What makes a social enterprise successful?

Social entrepreneurs measure success by the number of people they are able to help and how effective they have been at solving a social issue. “Ultimately the success is that you run out of business, and you’ve helped solve some sort of societal problem that you wanted to address and so you are no longer needed,” says Avila.

With that being said, they also measure success by the amount of revenue and profit they produce. “The more money you make, effectively the more beneficiaries and people in your community you’re supposed to be able to help,” adds Avila. 

What resources does business school offer social entrepreneurs? 

While business school isn’t a prerequisite for entrepreneurs to tackle issues they’re passionate about, a social enterprise is still a business, and business school has many courses, resources, and opportunities to help better prepare someone for running one. At Vanderbilt Business, there are several academic centers, including the Turner Family Center (TFC), the Wond’ry Innovation Center, and the Center for Entrepreneurship, which provide numerous events, programs, and people who can make the path to success a little bit easier.

“The TFC is purposefully located at the Business School at Vanderbilt, because we truly believe that it is business principles and working with the market that allows the social entrepreneurs and social enterprise to effect the largest possible social change within their targeted communities or demographics,” said Avila. 

Avila also points to the entrepreneurship and social impact and sustainability emphases for the MBA program and the experiential Social Impact Certificate students can earn through the TFC, both of which give students hands-on learning opportunities and a fundamental understanding of running a business sustainably.

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