February 11, 2020

Four Faces of the Social Entrepreneur

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The Social Entrepreneur is not confined to one age demographic, personality, or background. Nor is she restricted to one single role.

Mohammed Yunus, patron saint of microfinance, helps us clarify social business (which is often a muddy concept). Profit companies bring in. Social businesses push out. It’s that simple.

Profit-only companies are old news. Companies that are about a multiple–bottom line (MBL) are growing fast these days. Really fast. And in particular, Generation Y wants to be part of something that matters; they want more than just a paycheck.  Check out Forbes’s “30 under 30” social entrepreneurs and be impressed at the innovative thinking and entrepreneurship of Gen Y (and soon to come…Gen Z).  

In my experience, social entrepreneurs can have four different faces:

  • Explorer
  • Reformer
  • Operator
  • Supporter

1.) Explorer—“Launching New Things”

Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes, puts it simply, “Instead of looking to charity to solve [a] problem, let’s look to entrepreneurship.” While there are debates about Blake’s methods, his motivation seems straightforward. He saw a need in Argentina in 2006 and determined to launch something new that would help.

Or take a look at Tyler Merrick of Project 7. By connecting the dots on cause and consumption, Tyler was able to be on the front end of a wave of new exploration in how social enterprise is done.

That’s the M.O. of an explorer. See a need. Start trying to meet that need. If you fail, recharge your batteries, and then try something different.

2.) Reformer—“Changing Old Things”

Reformers are those social entrepreneurs who take something existing and remake it to conquer new challenges. It could be an old established non-profit, a small private company, or an enormous worldwide brand.

The first steps could be repurposing the mission, layering on another bottom line, or aspiring sustainability. But all reformers are change agents.

Beware though. This can be harder than launching something new, but it can still be worth the effort. And there could be a bundle of assets and resources worth reclaiming.

3.) Operator—“Optimizing Moving Things”

Not every entrepreneur is always starting things or changing things.

Jordan Kassalow is the founder of VisionSpring, a social enterprise that equips individuals to sell reading glasses. So VisionSpring provides jobs and improves eyesight around the world.

Kassalow is certainly something of an explorer, but he’s had to learn to be an operator as well.  He first tried something in China in 2005.  It didn’t work.  He modified the cost structure and tried again in Bangladesh in 2008.  Another failure.

In 2010, he modified again and tried something in El Salvador, this time adding a store for prescription glasses, an adjustment that tipped the scale. The project in El Salvador quickly became self-sustaining.

You can read his Forbes interview here, where he shares some of his journey and what he’s learned along the way.

Kassalow and VisionSpring will certainly have to make more changes, but that’s the nature of the operator.  Watch costs closely, make adjustments quickly. Cut excess and improve production. That is the territory of an operator.

4.) Supporter—“Helping All Things”

I have a good friend named Terry. He is a “come alongside” personality. On three occasions (that I know of) Terry has joined a founder to grow an idea forward. He isn’t really an explorer or a reformer. He is more the operator but truth be told, he is really a supporter.

Most social entrepreneurs need a Terry. We need someone to cheer us on, to believe in us, and to inspire us.

Alone, a Terry will not launch a movement, but neither will the explorer, the reformer, nor even the operator.  

This face could be a board member role, an investor or donor, or just an informal friend.


I work with hundreds of social entrepreneurs every year—Gen Y, Gen X, and even a few Baby Boomers like myself. Many of these entrepreneurs are my heroes because instead of making much of themselves, they make much of their cause.

If I listed their names, you would have heard of some—big names leading big organizations.  Many of them, however, are not cover stories…they are just faithful leaders looking to push wealth and benefits out to others, whether that’s on a small scale or a large scale.

As social entrepreneurs, they know that their cause matters, so they focus on how to best advance the cause.

The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship writes that social entrepreneurs are people who combine the characteristics of Richard Branson and Mother Teresa. From my seat, I would add a few faces to their cast of characters. That way we all get to play.

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