Aditi Subramaniam
Montgomery Blair High School
Silver Spring, MD
11th Grade
3rd Place, Maryland

Social Entrepreneurs: Helping the Community, Transforming Society, and Improving Quality of Life

     On a cold winter morning in 2012, Dr. Peterson of the Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore treated a three-year old boy inflicted with frequent asthma attacks. Dr. Peterson found that the boy, who is one of four children in the Jackson family, was suffering from health issues aggravated by his home environment – the family lived with eleven other people in a dilapidated apartment with lead paint peeling off the walls, no heat or gas, and toxic asbestos fibers filling the air. The Jacksons were unable to find regular work, and saving enough money for food and rent was difficult. Dr. Peterson recognized what scores of other physicians do: many low-income families facing ailments also deal with life challenges at the same time. So, along with a prescription for asthma medication, Dr. Peterson prescribed a visit to Health Leads, an organization that connects disadvantaged families with the basic resources and critical needs that they need to stay healthy (“Our Impact”). Soon, the Jackson family received health insurance and financial assistance, which allowed them to upgrade to a new apartment, free of toxic substances. Mrs. Jackson also enrolled in a job-training program, which lead the way to a stable job and a stable income, and eventually to better health. 

     Over the past decade there has been an explosion of organizations such as Health Leads, whose primary purpose is to create social value by identifying and solving large-scale social issues. Sixty percent of the country’s social enterprises were created in 2006 or later, of which twenty-nine percent were created after 2011 (Thornley). Social enterprises differ from social service in that they do not focus on short-term solutions by simply providing assistance to people in need. Such enterprises strive to address the root cause of societal problems related to health care, education, energy and poverty, by adopting innovative approaches that provide sustainable solutions. Social enterprises have an enormous impact by opening new doors for the underprivileged and by providing badly needed solutions to social issues. For-profit social entrepreneurship has some similarities to business entrepreneurship but differs in its primary objective. As opposed to traditional businesses that are bound by revenue and accountability to shareholders, social enterprises are bound only by a requirement to maximize a social impact, whether for profit or not. Thus, the very nature of a social enterprise makes it a stronger vehicle than business enterprises for transforming society and improving quality of life in the United States. 

     Social enterprises are effective because they take a grassroots approach to solving society’s problems. Conventional thinking dictates that these problems must be fixed with deep thinking and wide range solutions, but this “top-down” approach stymies success because conflicting ideas make it difficult to find an optimal solution. Instead, social entrepreneurs focus on small communities, experimenting with solutions and constantly re-evaluating to figure out what works. This small-steps approach allows them to immediately aid the community and simultaneously develop a long-term solution that they can apply to the rest of the country. 

     One such is example is Food Recovery Network (FRN), a program started by three University of Maryland College Park students in an effort to reduce food waste in college cafeterias. In 2011, these students noticed that all the leftover food in their dining hall was just thrown away at the end of each day, contributing to the 36 million tons of food wasted each year (“Resource Conservation”). Meanwhile, 1 in 8 people in Washington, D.C. were struggling with hunger (“Food Recovery Network Students”). FRN volunteers repurposed this excess food and delivered it to local shelters and food banks. The students recovered between 150 and 200 pounds of food a day, and by the end of the school year had donated 30,000 meals (“Food Recovery Network Students”). The enterprise has since spread its wings to over thirty universities, helping to address food wastage across the nation. To date, FRN has 210,980 pounds of recovered food to hungry people in the community, showing how a simple idea can create wide-ranging, lasting solutions. 

     More importantly, social enterprises are known for their ability to create positive social change and improve the quality of life. Whereas traditional businesses are defined by the stock market or profit margins, social ventures can focus on solving a specific social problem. Moreover, many enterprises go beyond treating symptoms; rather, they make changes to the system to prevent the problem from occurring. One example is Genesys Works, a Forbes’ Top Thirty Social Entrepreneurship that provides skills training to inner-city high school seniors enabling them to succeed in a corporate environment (“About Us”). The students are trained during the summer and placed in jobs during their senior year of high school. However, the company does not measure its success based on the number of students it has helped, but instead aims to reform the underlying culture of inner-city schools so that, upon graduating high school, all students will be equipped to pursue a professional career – an opportunity to a better life. 

     Not all social businesses are concentrated on helping underprivileged or low-income families. In 2008, Sara Horowitz began the Freelancers Union to offer low-cost insurance to self-employed professionals. Freelancers were not offered the same type of health care and unemployment protection as salaried workers, although many members of the American workforce were “leaving the office cubicle for the coffee shop” (Horowitz, “The Freelance Surge”). In fact, 42 million American workers are self-employed, constituting approximately one-third of the workforce (Horowitz, “A Jobs Plan”). Freelancers Union supports these workers so they can pay their bills even while they are in between jobs. In doing so, the Union addresses a social need that both government and private sector businesses have been unable to adequately fill. 

     Although lack of funding can be a challenge, social entrepreneurs have shown that they can be creative in their business models to sustain their enterprises. TOMS, for example, donates a pair of shoes for every pair bought. Smaller organizations like FRN have relied on volunteer work and donations, whereas larger ones like Health Leads work with community partners and sponsors to gain funding. Venture philanthropists such as Skoll Foundation and Acumen Fund are now vested in supporting social enterprises as well. Many prominent institutions such as Harvard and Duke University have created research, curriculum and career development programs geared towards social businesses. Kash Rangan, Professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School and pioneer of the school’s Social Enterprise Initiative, states that “at least half [the school’s] graduates are involved in [social enterprises] within ten to fifteen years after graduation” (Thomspon). He also predicts that over the next fifty years, six trillion dollars will be earmarked for social entrepreneurship (Thompson). 

     The United States has a powerful heritage of community driven solutions and philanthropy (Bornstein and Davis). Although business entrepreneurships have their place, they are too bound by the market economy to focus solely on social issues. Social enterprises are headed by passionate leaders committed not only to helping but also to revamping society in order to improve the quality of life. Given their growing support and awareness and the critical needs they address, social enterprises are poised to make an inimitable impact on the lives of the American people. 

Works Consulted

"About Us." Genesys Works. Genesys Works, 2013. Web. 06 Nov. 2013. 

Bornstein, David, and Susan Davis. Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. 

"Food Recovery Network Students Fight Food Waste and Hunger." PRWeb. Vocus, 30 Aug. 2013. Web. 06 Nov. 2013. 

Horowitz, Sara. "The Freelance Surge Is the Industrial Revolution of Our Time." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media, 1 Sept. 2011. Web. 06 Nov. 2013. 

Horowitz, Sara. "A Jobs Plan for the Post-Cubicle Economy." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media, 5 Sept. 2011. Web. 06 Nov. 2013. 

"Our Impact." Health Leads. N.p., 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2013. 

"Resource Conservation - Food Waste." US EPA. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 24 Sept. 2013. Web. 06 Nov. 2013. 

Thompson, Roger. "The Coming Transformation of Social Enterprise." HBS Working Knowledge. Harvard Business School, 15 Sept. 2008. Web. 06 Nov. 2013. 

Thornley, Ben. "The Facts on U.S. Social Enterprise." The Huffington Post., 08 Nov. 2012. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.