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Social Entrepreneurship:
Improving the World and Seizing Opportunity

View the presentation slides.The Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership spring lecture series welcomed J. Gregory Dees to the University of Illinois on March 1. An accomplished educator in social entrepreneurship, Dees is currently an adjunct professor of social entrepreneurship and nonprofit management at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

The lecture began with a brief definition of social entrepreneurship. The technical definition is limited to simply "starting a business with a social purpose," but Dees asserted that this dry definition "doesn't capture the spirit of finding new and better ways to do things."

And that spirit is what excites Dees about entrepreneurship, who noted that it takes a certain type of person to be a successful entrepreneur. You must have keen creative skills and a knack for seizing whatever opportunity is presently available. Entrepreneurs are change-friendly, innovative, resourceful, and oriented towards generating a valuable product or service. A good entrepreneur must find new methods, new markets, and new ways of doing things. Dees referenced Google, which invented a new algorithm for internet search relevance.

While private entrepreneurship is designed to benefit individuals or private parties, the goal of social entrepreneurship is to improve society. Where a private company measures its success in revenue generated for the business, a social organization's success is defined by social impact. This has the potential to be greatly rewarding for large groups, but problems arise concerning the definition of social benefit. What is good? Dees used the example of abortion, which may be considered an invaluable service by some, but evil by others.

Social entrepreneurship groups are often but not always not-for-profit organizations, although Dees stated that it was appropriate for such a group to generate revenue only as long as its primary goal was social improvement, and decision-making was based on its goals. Because not-for-profit organizations typically raise most of their money through personal donations, it is important for the donor to feel connected to the group. Dees mentioned the Nature Conservancy and Greenpeace, environmental groups that have different methods of achieving the same goals. The Nature Conservancy appeals to more quiet, non-confrontational environmentalists, while Greenpeace caters to the activist. Clear group personas are necessary to ensure steady donations because, as Dees says, "philanthropy is a difficult source of funding to rely upon."

The Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership offer entrepreneurial programs, services, and resources to faculty and graduate students on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus.

--April Lillstrom
March 2005