Education and Skills

Who is a Social Entrepreneur?

Kyle Zimmer
Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, First Book
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Despite the tensions in the world and the economic threats, some profoundly hopeful notes were sounded from the halls of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Tianjin this week, particularly among the social entrepreneurs in attendance. More than ever before, we have been integrated into the fabric of the discussions and the infrastructure of the sessions. This level of integration reflects a new level of recognition for the social sector. As the field matures, we need to initiate a dialogue about the definitional focus of the term “social entrepreneur.”

For decades the field has focused on start-up phase entrepreneurs. Most of the awards and media attention are directed to the newest enterprises. For a long time this made sense because, frankly, that was all there was. But our focus on start-ups eliminates two important categories that are critical to the evolution of the field – and to reaching our broader goals:

1. Second stage social entrepreneurs. The early pioneers are evolving into new roles. In some cases they are building new enterprises, in others they are pioneering new revenue strategies, or stepping into academic roles. The social sector needs to expand its focus to elevate the role of this critical group of social innovators for two reasons: First – these are the people who were establishing the leading innovations when the field was new and are most likely to bring wisdom and experience to the new frontiers. Secondly, by focusing on the newest models so exclusively, we fail to assist people who are navigating the issues that confront more mature organizations, including sustainability and succession planning. These issues will make or break institutions at precisely the point when they are reaching the scale necessary to contribute significantly to social change.

2. Social innovators who sit at the helm of large institutions. There is also a new — but still too rare — breed of leaders who have taken the helm of large existing institutions and yet remain committed to social innovation. This is a critical group of people who can determine whether social sector organizations attain their full impact. My organization, First Book, provides a great example of this dynamic. Our efforts to elevate the number and quality of books and resources available to classrooms serving children in need will never reach significant impact levels without innovators at the helm of teacher organizations. In partnership with innovators like Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, First Book will reach millions of children. Our failure to recognize people of her caliber, and include them in our community will necessarily limit the scale of our impact.

So consider this a shout out for a bigger tent approach to the question of ‘who is a social entrepreneur?’


Author: Kyle Zimmer, President and Chief Executive Officer, First Book, USA; Social Entrepreneur of the Year, USA, 2006; Schwab Fellow of the World Economic Forum

Lack of access to books is a central obstacle to literacy development, with studies revealing an average of just one book for every 300 children in low-income neighborhoods. To address this need, First Book has created The First Book Marketplace, an online bookstore, and currently serves a network of 23,000 groups across the US and Canada and reaching millions of these underserved children.

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