I recently attended the Ideation Conference in Chicago, which was focused on creative social good.  It was a 3 day event created by Charles Lee, the founder of Ideation Consultancy. It was informative & entertaining. It is only held once a year, but in my opinion, a must attend event for everyone involved in social entrepreneurship.

I attended the event because I was interested in Social Entrepreneurship, mainly because I knew nothing about it. I wasn’t interested in becoming a social entrepreneur, but rather intrigued to uncover what the difference is between social entrepreneurs and tech entrepreneurs. Is there a difference? I had my share of questions.

  • Are social entrepreneurs just entrepreneurs who are focused on social causes?
  • Do social entrepreneurs even care about making revenue and turning a profit?
  • Is their main goal to do social good first and make money second, or is their main goal to make money by using a social cause?
  • Do they truly care about their causes, or are they using the social aspect of their business models to relate to consumers, thus bringing in more revenue?
  • Are Social entrepreneurs better people than “normal” tech entrepreneurs?
  • In terms of business structure, how similar are social good companies and non-profits?

Then I asked myself one last question: Are social entrepreneurs really entrepreneurs?

I went to the conference to learn, and learn I did. Here are some of the key differences I noticed after attending this 3 day conference:

  • Tech entrepreneurs do not go to social entrepreneurship events. I barely knew anyone. I’m used to seeing a lot of familiar faces at entrepreneurship events in Chicago, but at this event, it seemed like everyone was new.
  • Business models are extremely different from typical start-ups. TOMS Shoes is a prime example. For every pair of shoes you buy, TOMS gives a pair to charity. That model is not prevalent at many start-ups.
  • Gender & Age. There were many more women at the conference than men, and ages of the attendees varied from young to old.

The biggest difference I noticed between social entrepreneurs and other entrepreneurs is how both groups attack business problems.

  • Social entrepreneurs seemed to know exactly what the problems were, but struggled with how to create a solution to fix them. TOMS Shoes (they were in attendance) seem to have the winning model of “buy one, give one” to charity. But it did seem that many of these social entrepreneurs defaulted to that model and struggled with other social business models.
  • Tech entrepreneurs, on the other hand, struggle with what the real problems are and build solutions that look for a problem to solve. Obviously not all entrepreneurs have this problem, but they acted much different than social entrepreneurs.

Are social entrepreneurs just entrepreneurs who are focused on social causes? From my view, it seemed as if they were into social good before they became entrepreneurial first. This is why they understood the problems much better than tech entrepreneurs.

Are the companies they create all non-profit? No. TOMS Shoes is a good example. I also have to include Zealous Good who pitched at Technori Pitch, and others such as Give Forward.

Do they even care about making revenue and turning a profit? Yes. They do, but in a much different way. Revenue is the life blood of any non-profit or for profit company, regardless of social mission.

Is their main goal to do social good first and make money second, or vice versa? I actually could not tell. There were some out there that truly wanted to solve a social problem, but I also felt their were a few people who were more interested in making revenue then solving the problem at hand by experimenting with different business models.

Are social entrepreneurs better people than “normal” tech entrepreneurs? This was a dumb thought of mine. We are all the same. I don’t think less of tech entrepreneurs because they are not addressing the social problems that the social entrepreneurs are.

So, to address the question of my post head on:

Is there a real difference between social entrepreneurs and tech entrepreneurs? This is tough for me to say, but yes. They are totally different beings. The conversations had by social entrepreneurs were much different than those had by tech entrepreneurs.

Are social entrepreneurs really entrepreneurs? I can say confidently that they are truly entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs with a totally different mindset. But yes, entrepreneurs.

Will social entrepreneurs ever just become “entrepreneurs”? I honestly don’t think so. We share a lot of qualities, but what they do vs. what we do is totally different. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but the motivation for what they do is totally different.

Do you agree? Where do you think the social entrepreneurship industry is headed in the future?


[Photography: Melissa Joy Kong]