How to become a social entrepreneur by Mel Young and Alexandra Matthews

By Guest Contributors Mel Young and Alexandra Matthews

Authors of Social Entrepreneurship explain how to become a social entrepreneur, based on their book Social Entrepreneurship.


A lot of people ask me how they can become a social entrepreneur. Well, you don’t have to ask permission; it isn’t a club.

There has been plenty written about that age-old question: are entrepreneurs born or are they made? Academic courses have been prepared and books writ- ten on this subject without any clear answer. We think there are two answers, and both are correct: you can be born to be an entrepreneur, but you can also learn to be one. Everyone’s circumstances are different. What drives people is different. And sometimes entrepreneurial zeal appears when you don’t expect it.

My stock answer to anyone who asks me how to become a social entrepreneur is that, before anything else, you must have real passion and drive to do some- thing – that’s essential – and then just do it.

As the concept of social entrepreneurship has emerged, it has attracted a lot of attention and even become quite trendy. This helps attract people to the sector, which is good news, but any successful social entrepreneur who we have come across – no matter if they are operating locally or internationally – have all been driven by a fundamental desire to create real change.



This desire or passion is an essential ingredient if you want to become a social entrepreneur. It is possible to come up with a smart idea, but unless you are pre- pared to throw your life at your venture with passion and belief, you will have much less chance of success.

Motivation is less important than passion and desire. We know people who have been born into poverty and their reason for becoming a social entrepreneur is that they are determined to change the circumstances of people who might fall into poverty as they did. But we know other people who have never lived-in poverty but who see a world that is full of inequality and are determined to do something about it. Both have made superb social entrepreneurs.

Similarly, we know people who weren’t particularly aware of environmental issues but were horrified when trees were cut down in their local neighbourhood and created an environmental social enterprise in response. Increased knowledge around the wider environmental issues followed and the social enterprise grew accordingly, with positive results.



People are motivated in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of times. Bart Weejens, a Dutch social entrepreneur, loved rats when he was a boy and came to under- stand their extensive positive assets. He believed that they would be very efficient at detecting land mines and could be trained to locate them. Initially people laughed at him, but he persisted and demonstrated that they were much more efficient than other animals, including dogs, which were being used extensively. He established his organization, APOPO, created what he called HeroRat technology and, slowly but surely, started to be taken seriously as the rats proved how efficient they were at finding mines.

APOPO has grown, and the rats are now also trained to detect diseases such as tuberculosis. Bart has received a lot of recognition for his work and the associated smart technology, which has saved many lives as a result of land mine clearing and detecting illnesses. It was his drive and passion, particularly in those early days, which have made those outcomes possible.



Another key attribute that successful social entrepreneurs demonstrate is their ability to unite people around their cause, even from a very early stage. Yes, they may have bucketloads of passion, but that won’t help build an impactful organization or movement unless they can bring other people with them on the journey. From the start, social entrepreneurs need to be looking out for people who share their passion and can be persuaded to join in. You must identify the skills you need to build the movement; equally, you need to be honest with yourself about what skills you have and don’t have.

Many successful social entrepreneurs will describe the early days of their venture as being part of a family or part of a team where everyone rolled up their sleeves in order to achieve initial objectives. The atmosphere is always one of collaboration with a real spirit of determination, and a sense of pride when targets are achieved. Getting that culture right in the early days is crucial. Everyone must buy into the initial vision and then feel that they ‘own’ it.



I started the Homeless World Cup with my friend and colleague Harald Schmidt, who ran a street paper called Das Megaphon in Graz in Austria. We were both very committed to the idea. A lot of people said that we were crazy – even people who knew us well thought that our idea would never work. But we were determined and wouldn’t take no for an answer. But we couldn’t do it all on our own and needed a team of people to back what we were doing.

We needed experts in football, sponsorship, event organization and communications. Of course, by 2001, when we came up with the idea, we both had a lot of experience of working with homeless people, but we had to bring in partners globally who were working with homeless people in their own countries on a day-to-day basis. Without these people, the Homeless World Cup simply wouldn’t exist.

We were building a movement and, in some senses, a large part of our work in those early days was as salespeople. We were selling a concept or an idea that to many people was crazy, so it wasn’t easy. But we kept working on it and slowly the movement began to grow; by 2002, some key people began to back us.



So social entrepreneurs must have passion, but they also must have determination. It was hard convincing people to support the Homeless World Cup in those early days, but we never gave up, despite some setbacks. In one case, a sponsor who agreed to support us pulled out and left us in a very difficult position. But we carried on and the first Homeless World Cup took place in Graz in Austria in 2003; it was a huge success.

We were only going to have one event but research feedback into the impact of the event, particularly for homeless people, was very positive, so we decided to develop and grow the organization. As a result, 1.2 million homeless people in more than 70 countries have benefited. It continues to be a huge success but those three ingredients – passion, determination and an effective team – are ever-present, and I am convinced that they form the basis of how to be a successful social entrepreneur.



I believe that there is some truth in the expression, ‘build it and they will come.’ People generally don’t like inequality. Since I started working with home- less people back in 1993, I have given many talks to a wide range of people, from young school children right through to some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world. At some point during each talk I ask, “Does anyone think homelessness is a good idea?” No one in all those years has said yes. My response is simple: why do we have it then? People are generally very sympathetic to the cause that social entrepreneurs lead, be it in the social or environmental space, because instinctively they understand the situation but feel impotent to do anything about it. People will therefore warm to an impactful concept. Build it and they will come.



Sometimes when people ask me about becoming a social entrepreneur; they expect me to talk about the correct legal entity and accounting procedures.

Obviously, these areas are important, but they shouldn’t be the first consideration. Feel the passion first and don’t be too inhibited by the organizational niceties at the beginning; they will follow naturally and there is plenty of good organizational advice available these days for budding social entrepreneurs to digest. It is that inner belief social entrepreneurs have – allied with a world view among the wider population that ‘something needs to change’ – that will make ventures a success because people will indeed come!



Apart from being good at sales, successful social entrepreneurs are very good storytellers. This is directly connected to their inner passion. Ask any successful social entrepreneur about what they do, and they will articulate it very well and with feeling, combining relevant data with human interest stories. It is a compelling mix that is digestible in a modern world inundated with media messages every second. It is so important for social entrepreneurs to build an effective brand that includes all the positive aspects of their work. That brand and how it is marketed will form an important part of the overall planning. I believe that storytelling is a vital part of the armoury of social entrepreneurs. They have great stories to tell, and people are genuinely interested.

Of course, while I go on about passion, determination and team creation as the key ingredients, it is important to create the right plan, just like in any venture. Planning is a fundamental part of any business concern and social entrepreneurs need to pay attention to the detail of this at an early stage. Some would argue that social entrepreneurs are ‘big picture’ people rather than ‘detail’ people, and I think that is largely true. But one of the main attributes of social entrepreneurs is that they are aware of their weaknesses and can bring in people who are good with the intricacies of running a business.


  1. Setting up the appropriate legal entity
  2. Getting the right board
  3. Writing the right business plan

If you’d like to find out more, please find book information below.


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.



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.



Suggested Reading

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.


More information