About 14 years ago, I found myself motivated to work with at-risk youth. I had also just started a business. Merging the two, I became a social entrepreneur long before I had ever heard that term. A social entrepreneur is one who recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a business model to achieve a desired social change. He impacts society and addresses a social injustice through his business ventures. That is exactly what I became. I found myself balancing passion and profit, trying to serve at-risk youth and develop programs while marketing my business to produce a profit. The social impact I wanted to have on the at-risk youth of my community came from my personal story. Every time I had a rebellious, angry, or despondent teen in front of me it tugged at my heart strings. Most social entrepreneurs are motivated by their personal experiences.
I have had the opportunity this year to interview several around the country, and all had a personal story. Let me share just a couple with you because the impact they are making is impressive. Café Reconcile was started because of a small group of people that felt the racial tension of a New Orleans neighborhood. They wanted to see racial reconciliation and neighborhood revival. Now they are renowned for reviving the neighborhood into a safer place for the community to enjoy, and helping at-risk youth find employment. Women's Bean Project began because one inspired lady saw the homelessness in Denver and gave some of those ladies a way to earn money one holiday season. Now they produce soups mixes, other food products, and jewelry that is sold nationwide through a partnership with Wal-Mart. Christian HELP, a Central Florida non-profit I am currently working with, started because of a couple who felt called to minister outside of the church. The founders were local entrepreneurs who were at a crossroads, deciding if they wanted to continue in business or not. They really felt God tugging at them to minister outside of the church and after speaking with their pastor decided to minister to the unemployed by providing for their material and spiritual needs. This ministry has continued to grow, helping people find jobs, hone their job skills, tweak their resumes, and much more over the 20 plus years.
Pillar Ranch, my social enterprise, impacted my community on only a local level; but, it left an eternal impact on many lives. (Freedom Trails was birthed from my work at Pillar Ranch.) As with any social enterprise that stands the test of time, each must refine and expand the programs or products they offer to stay relevant in changing times. The changing economy and the changing demographic served may require a different offering than what the business may have started with. For me, I started with basic horseback riding lessons. My offerings then evolved to include adjunct therapy, life skills sessions, writing core curriculum with rubrics, and more. I found myself partnering with non-profits to co-write grants and speaking throughout the region on using horses as a therapeutic tool. One counselor even stated "One session at the barn reveals more about my client than 3 (sessions) in my office!" With reviews like that it validates one as a social entrepreneur. You really know you are making a difference in the lives of others, and that is why we exist.
Even though 14 years ago I hadn't heard the term "social enterprise" or "social entrepreneur" I have been amazed at the amount of research and information out there as I have studied tirelessly this past year. These terms are becoming the social norm, so much so that universities are being recognized for teaching this as part of their business curriculum. One local college, Rollins College, has been recognized with the Ashoka designation this year. I was amazed as I audited the Changemaker class, watching 16 students raise $1600 for their causes in about 40 minutes! These are not professional fundraisers with any experience; these are young adults looking to make a difference.
Between 2003 and 2009, the top business schools have increased the courses that they offer on social entrepreneurship by 110%. Obviously, our young adults are seeing social injustice in the world and want to be an activist for change. Business departments were added to university curriculum to teach students how to become an executive at GM, and other Fortune 100 companies; however, our business departments today are seeing a shift towards entrepreneurship, specifically social entrepreneurship. Arizona State University opened Changemaker Central, another effort to inspire social enterprise.
There five steps to "inspire, catalyze, and sustain" social change are: believe, commit, connect, implement, repeat. For those aspiring to become a social entrepreneur, some sage pieces of advice given to me as I interviewed successful Changemakers around the country were:
"Have the courage of your conviction"
"The mission and the business are integrated and their can be daily conflict to balance both"
"Allow your ideas to evolve"
"Make a product or offer a service that is on par with what is out there, rather than relying on the cause to tug at people's heart strings"
"Inspire others to join your cause"
"Keep the unique needs of your community in mind" (as Homeboys Industries does so well)
"Building relationships plus involving the community equals success".
From my personal experience as an entrepreneur I would agree; these are wise leaders.
Another piece of advice I would recommend is to find a social entrepreneur who is willing to mentor you. Most of them are very willing to do so. As I interviewed many around the country, most invited me to connect with them again and feel free to contact them if I had more questions. I've found most successful people truly want to share their knowledge and have a mentee that is receptive to learning. Frontier Market Scouts mission is to ".....gain career-defining and life-changing experiences at the rich intersection of ideas, people, and places between purpose and profit". Those words make me want to embrace and immerse myself into the world of social enterprise. Every young person that seeks my advice on career paths is told to do what you love. I ask what they are passionate about; the money will follow.
Author: Royce Gomez has been an entrepreneur for almost two decades. She has owned businesses in multiple industries, and is currently working with Christian HELP to develop a social enterprise. Royce has written and self-published curriculum using experiential learning models. She is passionate about entrepreneurship, mentoring youth, empowering women, reading, and cooking. One day she hopes to finish writing her story and perhaps open a restaurant.