by Kate Vandeveld

These days, those who are interested in making a positive social impact have options when it comes to choosing a business model. While some organizations continue to function more effectively as non-profits, others have benefited from the rise of the for-profit social enterprise, which allows businesses with socially conscious missions to focus on impact while simultaneously making a profit.

Leading the movement toward “doing well by doing good” are social entrepreneurs – savvy visionaries who want to create substantive social change and have innovative ideas about how to do it.


This summer, celebrated social entrepreneur Priya Karim Haji passed away, and shortly thereafter, Fast Company named her “the best social entrepreneur of our generation.” Haji, who cofounded four revolutionary social enterprises during her lifetime, was known for her belief that anyone can create social change:

“I really think the best ideas are still out there … and [if] you know you have a way to solve a problem using business or technology or a creative approach, don’t just sit there and don’t doubt yourself—just try.”  

The more passionate individuals that take Haji’s advice, the better, but social entrepreneurs do need more than just an innovative idea to be successful. Here’s what it takes: 


Perhaps the single most important quality of a successful social entrepreneur is a deep-seated passion for a social cause that truly inspires them. Successful social entrepreneurs are driven to overcome obstacles and keep trying after failure because they truly care about what they’re doing and the change they’re hoping to make.  This is what gets them up in the morning, and pushes them to go above and beyond. Successful social entrepreneurs don’t just want to create change, they need to.

What sets social entrepreneurs apart from other types of entrepreneurs is that they are truly fueled by a desire to address a social problem, rather than by a need for profit or recognition. In combination with passion for a particular social cause, this “strong ethical impetus” is at the very core of a successful social entrepreneur.


Determination & Commitment

But passion alone isn’t enough to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Building a social enterprise – or any kind of enterprise, for that matter – means long hours, overcoming countless obstacles, and a lot of learning. Passion goes a long way, but successful social entrepreneurs need something else to make it through: determination and commitment to their work. Solving long-term social problems isn’t easy, and only those who are fully committed to seeing their ideas through (even in the face of fear or failure) will prevail. For successful social entrepreneurs, giving up is simply not an option.


So you have an innovative idea for a solution to a social problem that you’re passionate about, and you feel like you’re ready to commit yourself to seeing it through. The next step is making it happen. Social entrepreneurs are often decisive doers, who are comfortable speaking up and taking concrete steps toward success.

But this doesn’t mean you have to get everything done yourself. In fact, nothing is more detrimental to efficiency than an inability to delegate. Once you’ve built a team that you trust and provided that team with the information and tools that they need to thrive, it is crucial that you have confidence in that team to run with their work, allowing you to continue to focus on the areas of the enterprise that most immediately require your skills and time.  


Flexibility & A Willingness to Learn

Successful social enterprises are often those that can quickly adapt. In order for this to happen, leaders must be open to consistent evaluation, and to making changes to their methods and processes based on what they’ve learned. Truly innovative ideas require trial and error and constant learning, and not every social enterprise looks the same from conception to completion.  In fact, 90% of successful ventures start with the wrong business plan.

But that’s not the only way that social entrepreneurs need to be flexible; they must also be willing to evolve themselves, constantly learning and expanding their skillsets. As new obstacles arise, entrepreneurs often have to find solutions on their own. Those who are willing to step outside of their comfort zones and learn are much more likely to be successful. 

A Strong Network & Humility

Even if you have all of these qualities in spades, you can’t (and probably shouldn’t) solve the world’s most pressing problems alone. The strength of a social entrepreneur’s network, along with a willingness to ask for help, can make a substantial impact in his or her effectiveness. Different people in your network will be able to provide different kinds of support when you need it – whether you’re looking for advice, perspective, partnership, or simply a cheerleader. Your network can also help you build a team that shares your passion and commitment, filling in gaps in your own skillset. 


So if you’re passionate about a social issue and have an idea for how you might be able to solve it, now is the time to seize the moment and give it a shot. But don’t do it because you feel you should – that probably won’t work. Instead, heed the words of Meriwether Group CEO David Howitt:

“It’s time we become modern-day heroes, doing our part to make the world a better place. Not because we should, but for no other reason than we must.”

Who is a social entrepreneur that you really admire? Tell us about them in the comments below, or start up a conversation about them on Facebook or Twitter.

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