Who is a Social Entrepreneur? 

Social entrepreneurship is what lies between the two poles of government-led and business-led transformation.  The authors present a framework for thinking about social entrepreneurship as a process with four stages: 

1: Understanding the world. The paradox of social transformation is that one has to truly understand the system as it is before any serious attempt can be made to change it.

2. Envisioning a new future. To make a positive difference, every change agent, whether a social entrepreneur or not, needs to set a direction. Successful social entrepreneurs set the bar high, envisioning fundamental equilibrium change for specific, targeted constituents.

3. Building a model for change. To bring a vision to life, social entrepreneurs must apply creativity and resourcefulness to building a model for change— one that is sustainable in that it reduces costs or increases value in a systemic and permanent way that can be quantified and captured.

4. Scaling the solution. Scalability is a critical feature of successful social entrepreneurship. Models that require constant reapplication of the same level of investment regardless of scale will commonly fail to produce sustainable equilibrium change. Such an approach may be too expensive to achieve transformational scale, especially when intended beneficiaries are unable to pay for the benefit.

Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works  (HBRP, 2015) Roger Martin and Sally Osberg

 It took me a while to figure out that I was a social entrepreneur.

This wasn’t because, as many might think, that I was trying to figure out what my business model was, but it was simply because I didn’t know there was a definition for people like me. In the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey, I often got myself into many heated debates with (well-meaning!) mentors, and was regularly told to ” just start selling it online, or in shops!”

All too often, in these discussions, I felt as though nobody understood what it was I was actually trying to set out to achieve. Confused, broke and two years into my start-up, I came too close to caving in to everyone else’s vision and I was on the verge of selling out on my dream, by commercialising only through retail.

But just at the last hurdle, I stopped. Of course, I needed money to survive, surge and strive, but this wasn’t my reason for doing what I did.

I paused. I thought about what it was I really wanted to do.

I wanted to remove the two tier system that existed in health care services. I wanted to reduce unnecessary waste and costs. I wanted to educate, empower and embrace all stakeholders in health care environments. I wanted to disrupt unhealthy competitive cultures. I wanted to create a truly collaborative, positive behavioural culture change in health care.

And I wanted to do this not just locally – but globally.

I wanted all promoters, engagers and innovators to get in on the action and educate others on what it was that was being done. But most of all – I simply wanted to help patients, carers and health care professionals have the best experiences, with the safest and  highest possible outcomes.

And I wanted them to do it, together.

When I would explain this to potential investors, it was often hinted that I was a bit “naive”. Surely one person, or product even, could not do all that?

My answer – why not?

I had thought up of a very simple toolkit called the MediStori to help patients and carers with the self-management and communication of health information. Taking credit for the concept, but not the end product [as it was developed with over two hundred patients, carers and health care professionals together] this little project was receiving extremely positive feedback from those that would need it most. But all too often, many potential partners would take one look at it and think – “your product is so outdated” or, “I know (or have!) something that can do even better!”

But that is, therein, where the problem was.

Unhealthy Competitive Cultures. And of course, Ego.

They were of course, right in many cases – this little toolkit of mine, was NOT the solution. It was, however, one part of a greater movement.

It was the enabler to bring about the bigger culture change that I so yearned for. As a paper based personal health record, it was probably more disruptive than any technology available. The collaborative way in which it was developed, the way it was designed, and the way in which it was delivered were what made this “product” become a “project”. I knew that if my solution was just another “product” on a shelf made available to just those who could afford it, I wasn’t changing a damn thing – I felt I was actually going against exactly what it was I set out to do.

It was these moments that made me realise, I was a social entrepreneur.

You see, I myself am a cardiac patient; I am a mum to three beautiful daughters who each have had complex chronic conditions; I am a wife to a husband who suffered a minor stroke at age 42 and I was a carer to my late daddy who was on a whopping twenty two medications. I knew the problems. I lived the problems.

I also knew the key to fixing them was through collaboration, not competition.

All too often, I had to keep on pitching to business mentors and coaches that I cared more about the cause, than the coins. Regularly, I ended up refusing to engage further with people if their proposals meant I had to challenge my value system. Regularly, I ended up in conflict with myself as I tried to justify my reasoning for not just “taking the money” when offered investment opportunities. But I just couldn’t do it. If I felt their “core” interest was not ethically right, I could not partner with them. I had to believe that they believed in what it was I was setting out to achieve.

It was at times like this, I often felt that I should have changed from being a limited company to a non-profit charity. But I thought about the limitation this might cause for international growth, and potential investments, and I remembered why I didn’t do this in the first instance.

The main benefits, that I could see, of being a non-profit was obviously the tax break, the awareness, and the many grants and public monies that could be raised to help fund the solutions to tackle the issues. People like charities.

But, I didn’t want to do this.

I wanted to work with other charities – not compete with them.

Additionally, from a business perspective, if I became a non-profit I felt I would be limited in how I raised private investment in return for equity – from people who had money and wanted to invest it to make profit for themselves. I didn’t want to limit my business model to just potential givers who may invest emotionally because of the cause, to just government agencies or from those who felt they had to, because of corporate responsibility for example. I felt I would be limited in where our monies raised went – if I wanted to put my money into research in another country, or pay for services abroad such as a mentor, or even reinvest that money into a brand new social project, this may have been frowned upon by the regulators. I felt I would be forced into having a particular type of executive board and because of pressures to become a registered charity to raise funds, I may choose the wrong people, at the wrong time, out of sheer pressure. I felt it wasn’t always in the best interest of society as a whole, economically, that I would not be paying back tax. I felt that I could be limited with regards to innovative transformation change in my company and if I wanted to grow internationally this could present with problems down the line. I also felt worried that the public [again] would have to donate, to essentially, themselves. I worried about the fact that I wanted to collaborate with many in the charitable sector, but that many of these (of course, not all), didn’t want to collaborate with one another, as they were all competing for funds in the same pool. [Interestingly, on this, I do want to add, what I did find throughout my journey, was that peer led charities, most often always, seemed more eager to work together than those that weren’t – and for those reading this – you know who you are! 🙂 ]

So after laying out all my feelings and concerns on paper, of course it might have seemed that I did not approve of the non-profit sector – and this is what I wanted to make very clear – this was absolutely not so. I raised money for years for amazing charities that have all helped me and my family personally – and I still donate and support same. I definitely think there is a place for non-profits and there is nothing wrong with their business model, at all. It’s just that I didn’t think it would work for my business and what I wanted to set out to achieve, on a global level.

I simply had a dilemma. On one hand, I potentially could receive funds from private investors who had money that they wanted to share and could get a return on investment, and on the other, I could potentially have to say no to such, but be potentially funded by getting grant aid and/or raise funds from the public.

Decisions, decisions.

You see, it’s not all dandy on the other side of the street either – there are many issues too with being a for-profit organisation, especially when you are a true social entrepreneur.

Firstly, we are often classed as “profit driven” – this personally drives me insane! [Excuse the pun!]

I am driven by the cause. End of.

And, I hate to say it, but I will address the elephant in the room –  I know that greed for money can be the only drive in the for-profit world – but greed for money also exists in the non-profit sector too!

But how I, personally, raise money, spend money or even share money shouldn’t be the decider as to whether I am a social entrepreneur or not. I am driven by what I do and why I do it, and not by how much money can be made by it. [Additionally, for the record, that doesn’t mean either, that I’m not smart enough to make profit!]

Secondly, don’t even get me started on procurement!

And then my third, biggest issue. Always  trying to raise funds from potential investors, who had loads of money, access to experienced teams and who could probably copy my idea in a heart beat, if they really wanted to. All too often though, as soon as I would meet them, I would know if I could really talk about my “global vision” or not. Quite often, as I learned, if I did, they would subtly indicate that I was unfocused or a bit delusional or better again, told in a round about way that I was “innocent”(#truestory). Trying to pitch was always difficult – on one hand they wanted me to make international sales, and on the other, they wanted me to scale back!

One example of this, was when I applied on seven different occasions for a chance to raise €50,000 in a competitive start up fund with a government support agency. Not once, in any of these rounds, was I ever brought to even interview stage. Over the years, I knew many start-up companies who had won this same funding.

And over the years, I also watched many of these same companies sadly cease trading.

But, I remember exactly, when the moment of irony hit me.

It was the day when my very first sale exceeded the annual turnover limits they had set themselves to be allowed to apply for this funding. This first sale made me become exempt from applying again, simply because, my customer, our public health services, believed more in me than our support agency for enterprise did!

And so, did I go shouting from the rooftops gloating, “Ha ha – in your face!”

Okay, (honestly!) a little part of me wanted to do this (I am after all, only human!) – but really and truly, what I wanted to shout to the world was that I felt there was no actual place for us innovative social entrepreneurs that didn’t fit in the non-profit sector. I wanted everyone to know that be we “for-profit” or “non-profit” that we both equally could add value to society – both economically and socially.

For me, personally, I also learned that it’s okay that I don’t tick everyone’s boxes. Because what matters now is that I choose to hold steady with my choice.

As an innovator and true social entrepreneur, I know now that I fit somewhere in between the “for profit” and “non for profit” sectors. My ideal investor is most likely to be a philanthropist – someone who just wants to see good people, do good things, with good people.

Personally, I truly feel the key to successful sustainability, for each of us in the health care ecosystem, is by proving the benefit, value and cost savings of what we have on offer for every stakeholder, and committing to reinvesting a percentage of funds raised, back into the services who pay for it.

I also believe the real way to do this properly is through collaboration, innovation and determination.

Because for me, everything I do, will always be, in the best interest of patients.

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland

Ideology for Awards Programme

Ultimately at Social Entrepreneurs Ireland what we care about is that the best ideas for social change get the right support to help them to succeed. That is our vision. And in that context it doesn’t really matter to us whether the organisation is a charity, a social enterprise or a for-profit. Each of these models have different advantages and disadvantages associated with them, but all three models have the potential to make a positive social impact in Ireland. So at an ideological level we have no particular favourite model – we just want to see great ideas for social change succeed in Ireland.”