What is a social entrepreneur by Mel Young and Alexandra Matthews

By Guest Contributors Mel Young and Alexandra Matthews

Authors of Social Entrepreneurship explain what a social entrepreneur is and how it differs from a traditional entrepreneur, based on their book Social Entrepreneurship.


It is a very good question. And I want to help you understand. To me, a social entrepreneur is very similar to a traditional entrepreneur. The big difference between the two is the motivation and outcome. An entrepreneur is typically driven by making money and the excitement of a good idea, whereas a social entrepreneur’s motivation is rooted in changing the world for the better, particularly in the areas of social and environmental enhancement.



Entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs display very similar characteristics. They are driven and don’t take no for an answer. They are ambitious, hard-working and see angles where others don’t, and they make personal sacrifices to achieve their goals. They will take risks, and they certainly aren’t nine-to-five people.

But they aren’t perfect. They are often obstinate and refuse to budge from their position, on the one hand, while on the other they will suddenly change direction completely. They are often only mediocre managers and can be very difficult to work with. They are completely focused on their goal, and they are open to different angles to hit their objectives.

Entrepreneurs are a defined subset of the business sector. Social entrepreneurs straddle the business and charity sectors and are starting to emerge as a clearly defined group of people with particular characteristics. They understand business models and will use them to achieve sustainable outcomes for wider society. They also believe in the values that underpin charities and will combine them with sustainable business planning to achieve substantial positive impact for society.

The biggest difference between entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs is the outcome. Social entrepreneurs are solely focused on changing society for the better and, as a breed, they have now been recognized as creators who add value and as leaders.

There are differing definitions of social entrepreneurship. The notion of an entrepreneur is more clearly understood than for the social entrepreneur, which only came into use around the start of this century, so is still a relatively new concept. Consequently, there are numerous definitions that relate to different countries or cultures, which in turn have different legal systems. This isn’t an academic book that will explore the different definitions and the different positions that people will take – it’s very easy to explore these things online.

Social entrepreneurs are not defined by whatever legal entity they might run. A number of them create hybrid models to carry out their work in the most effective way. While issues of governance and control are important, the real imperative for social entrepreneurs is to change the world, and so they will solely focus on impact and outcome and will use any legal model necessary to achieve that. I am a social entrepreneur, and I’d like to share my journey with you.



It was in 1997 when someone said to me, “You are a social entrepreneur!” I thought about it for a short while and concluded that it summed me up perfectly. I’d tried to define myself for most of my life without success and suddenly here was the answer. I no longer had an identity crisis.

Up until 1993, I’d gained experience in various aspects that make up the social entrepreneur. I set up a magazine after I left university (the entrepreneur part) and worked in a large housing scheme (the social part). I’d always worked with people, established teams and created opportunities for the people involved.



In 1993, I set up The Big Issue in Scotland along with a friend, Tricia Hughes. We both found the level of homelessness and poverty in Scotland at the time abhorrent, and we wanted to do something tangible. The Big Issue provided a simple route out of homelessness, and we both bought into the philosophy of ‘a hand up rather than a handout,’ which, of course, appealed to the social entrepreneurs: social entrepreneurialism is about sustainable, lasting change, not short-term fixes.

The Big Issue was originally founded in the UK in 1991 by John Bird (now Lord John Bird) and Gordon Roddick, the co-founder of The Body Shop. Both men were from different backgrounds, but they were incredibly entrepreneurial, and The Big Issue was a huge success. Tricia and I spoke to them about bringing the magazine up from London to Scotland, but their focus at the time was on London’s severe homelessness problem, so we established a completely separate organization in Scotland and signed an agreement to use The Big Issue name. It was a type of franchise; maybe it was the first-ever social franchise.

The Big Issue in Scotland was a resounding success. Not only did it impact the lives of many homeless people in a very positive way, but it also changed the whole profile of social enterprise and challenged the traditional notion of charity as the only solution to social problems.

The Scottish social enterprise created a number of ventures, including a bank and a recycling unit, as well as helping develop the street newspaper concept across the world, particularly in Russia and former Eastern bloc countries. The Big Issue in Scotland and the original The Big Issue merged in 2003.

What was fascinating to some people at the time was that we had emerged from nowhere and all of a sudden, we were on everyone’s lips. There were many reasons, but the key component was the innovative drive from social entrepreneurs. A can-do culture had emerged, and new ideas were welcomed. They didn’t all work, but energy levels were high. Another key factor was that The Big Issue in Scotland was financially self-sufficient from the start. It did not have to rely on grants or handouts, which can often slow progress or create mission drift. In the early years, it was like being on an express train – crazy at times for sure, but ultimately very satisfying because the positive impact on human life was substantial.



In the 1990s, the social enterprise sector started to emerge. This was more about the legal entity than the purpose – the middle ground between a business and charity – but support for the concept was growing.

In many ways, the idea of a social enterprise isn’t so new: lots of people claim that they came up with the concept. But traditional business has always grappled with its role in society. Of course, many businesses made their owners very wealthy as they exploited poorly paid workers (sadly, that is still the case in many places across the world), but there has always been an alternative view to the role of business. One of the most famous is Robert Owen, who owned a large textile mill based in New Lanark in central Scotland around the beginning of 1800. Owen paid all his workers well and provided a supportive community for everyone connected with the mill. His philosophy was anti-exploitative, but he also understood that productivity increased when you had a healthy, happy and well-educated workforce.

Owen was ahead of his time, but a lot of his thinking is applied by many modern businesses, which see that there is a role beyond simply making a profit. The Body Shop is a great example. Its founders, Gordon and Anita Roddick, understood the notion of profit and purpose going hand in hand and built a hugely successful business around an incredibly effective environmental campaign.

I remember attending a meeting they helped organize in Prague in the mid-1990s. They were part of a fascinating organization called Social Venture Network (SVN), which had been established in 1987. While I had been involved in a successful social enterprise in Scotland, I had no idea of the breadth and scale of the interventions that were happening around the world. There were many businesses in attendance, discussing how they could be a force for good, but there were also many others that were using business models to create social or environmental good.

This was my first interface with social entrepreneurs – although I didn’t call them that at the time – from all over the world. Some of these people were the pioneers behind concepts such as fair trade or microfinance, and they not only shared what they were doing but explained how they were going to scale and how the world would change.



Combined together, the impact of social entrepreneurs around the globe has been significant. It is true that the development of these networks for individual social entrepreneurs has helped raise the profile of social entrepreneurship, but the sector continues to develop. While the individual social entrepreneurs in these networks have been given a platform, giving them credibility and a profile, there are thousands of social entrepreneurs quietly getting on with their work and making a positive intervention in their communities around the world. You don’t necessarily need global recognition to be an effective social entrepreneur.

This is a point made by Lawrence Demarco, one of the founders of Senscot. While he recognizes the key role that founders and leaders play in the setting up and development of any enterprise, he believes the long-term impact and sustainability of the organization is more important than any one individual.

By then, I had started the Homeless World Cup, an annual football tournament that uses football as a tool to help homeless people help themselves – you can read more about it in Chapter 6 of my co-authored book, Social Entrepreneurship. I could see the potential for considerable impact around the world. We could potentially change the lives of thousands of homeless people. I was enthusiastic and probably obsessed with the vision, but Martha brought me up short. When I asked her about her plans to grow and develop in other countries, she told me clearly that she didn’t have any. She would concentrate on improving the depth and quality of her organization locally. Full stop. I remember being initially taken aback by this but, on reflection, it made sense.

It is possible for social entrepreneurs to sit down together and have different mindsets and be incredibly impactful in their own ways. We have similar DNA, and we don’t have to be swept along by a model that is all about growth. But we will inspire and openly support one another.


ALEXANDRA MATTHEWS has a background is in writing and marketing; she also worked at Ashoka UK, a network of leading social innovators, where Mel is a Fellow. Together, they have created The New Ism, a discussion forum with a huge ambition: to create a new, more inclusive and sustainable global system that brings together the efforts of social innovators across the world.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandra-matthews-02501522


MEL YOUNG is a social entrepreneur and founder of several successful social enterprises including the Homeless World Cup, which uses football to inspire people who are homeless to transform their own lives; more than a million people have been positively impacted. He has won several awards and is the author of two books.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mel-young-6646b37


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There’s a lot going wrong in the world: climate change, war, inequality, divisive politics. It can be hard to see a way out of the issues we face. But social entrepreneurs across the world are addressing these big problems in innovative ways: The New Ism seeks to build their innovations into the fabric of modern society, creating a new, more sustainable and inclusive global system.

Social Entrepreneurship, the first book of a series on how society can learn from social innovators, authors Mel Young and Alexandra Matthews demystify what it means to be a social entrepreneur and explore how their work could help us all to create a sustainable, inclusive world where humans live within the means of the planet and all life can thrive. Through their podcast interviewing social innovators and disruptors, and Mel’s experience as a leading social entrepreneur himself, they have a unique vantage point on what could be the key to a brighter future.


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