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The Social Entrepreneurial Spirit

By Pamela Karch Bridges’ Research Coordinator & Lindsay Mitchell Bridges’ Executive Director

“Our vision is fully realized human potential and a peaceful world abundant with optimism and hope.” ~ Bridges Social Development’s vision

From all the research I have done about social entrepreneurship, what I have discovered is that there are an abundance of articles and columns defining, describing, discussing, mulling over, and contesting the countless definitions and meanings of social entrepreneurship. It is not that we are trying to reinvent the wheel at Bridges, but we are, for ourselves, still striving to learn what social entrepreneurship means to us as an organization. Not only is social entrepreneurship a facet of our programming, but we see the spirit of social entrepreneurship in so many of our workshop participants that it is imperative for us to understand and learn its history, characteristics, and inherency in people. My intention here is to share our learnings and how we have been unpacking and understanding the landscape of social entrepreneurship – as well as its history and its link to compassion and caring.

Enterprising Activities

If we look back in time at the history of humanity and early hunter/gatherer civilizations, all individuals and communities spent their time, energy and talents trying to survive. Each person in the community developed a skill, strength, or task – some gathered, some hunted, some nurtured, some healed – all tasks were necessary for the survival of the family and broader community group. This was accomplished through the exchange of value – I will hunt if you will gather, I will heal you if you will feed me, etc. Our survival as humans depended on our need for each other and our willingness to exchange our goods and services; one might say early humans were in the business of caring for family and community for survival. What occupied the time, energy and mind of individuals within our early civilizations was survival. And because survival was inherently linked to the contributions from others, our ancestors were carefully keeping busy caring about each other in order for themselves and the collective community to survive. This exchange represents the early market structure and was necessary for the survival of everyone – they relied on each person’s ability to care and provide for the group.

Today many of us associate exchange with enterprising activities, and the word enterprise is used to define a type of organization started by an entrepreneur. Both enterprise and entrepreneur originated in early 15c from the Old French word entreprendre – or to undertake. The definition of undertake is supported by language such as “assume responsibility”, “to take upon oneself”, and “obligation to perform”. The enterprise of early civilizations was an undertaking to meet life’s survival challenges, and thriving communities required individuals to invest their time, energy and talents in adapting to these challenges and meeting the needs of the community by providing solutions that enabled the collective survival. To undertake insinuates action and responsibility – therefore early entrepreneurs were those individuals that took action to provide something of value to exchange in the early community survival marketplace, and to take responsibility for the care and survival of family and community.

It wasn’t until the creation of the capital market, and the exchange of money that enterprise became about corporations, and where undertaking a venture became about starting an organization that would add value through a profitable financial return. This was because society started to ‘care’ about money as a goal and intention for what they were undertaking, rather than caring for family and community survival. At this point, entrepreneurship followed a shift in the marketplace – one that was driven by monetary trade exchange vs. value in service/good exchange. In the 19th century, a French economist by the name of Jean-Baptiste Say described the entrepreneur as one who “shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield” (Martin & Osberg, 2007, p. 31), which lead individual entrepreneurs to be directed more towards economic advancement as their definition of success. Add to this the industrial and agricultural revolutions, and even more today, the intellectual and technological revolutions, and individuals have become less and less directly reliant on one’s broader community, or even family for survival. What changed is that there is no longer an inherent biosocial need to care or undertake activities that benefit the community, and instead, entrepreneurship has become about the things we personally care about – and the capital market helps write that definition for us today – it’s about bettering ourselves, creating growth and having success, especially financial success. As such, the nature of being an entrepreneur in today’s modern definition is about the creation of a venture that will make a profit. The horizons of caring for others have become very small, because our daily survival is not as obviously connected to the greater communities of which we are a part.

This brief contemplation of our historical association with enterprise helps us understand the new trend towards using the term ‘social’ in front of ‘entrepreneur’ when defining a person who demonstrates innovation for the purpose of solving social challenges, rather than solely for financial gain. We can therefore consider a different understanding of the need and opportunity for creating leaders who are entrepreneurial or, have an entrepreneurial spirit. The main differences can be found in the intention and the goal. In order to distinguish the subtle shift based on the intention and expectation of outcomes, ‘social’ has been added to ‘entrepreneur’ to indicate someone who is creating a venture that will make a social return or value creation in what they are seeking to undertake. This gets back to the true root of entrepreneurship; of caring and compassionate undertaking, or creating a venture based on what is important for the survival and care of the broader community.

In light of these things, we’d like to suggest that it is the entrepreneurial spirit, or the self-motivated desire to undertake all of life’s survival challenges, that is in need of nurturing, and supporting; that this spirit combined with caring and compassion is how we will nourish our communities and our world.

The Caring and Compassionate Spirit

“Compassion is a deep awareness of and feeling for another’s suffering, combined with an active, engaged desire to alleviate it. Compassion is about more than acknowledgment – it’s about action” (Durieux & Stebbins, 2012, p. 25)

At Bridges Social Development, we meet a lot of youth who care and are compassionate about their communities and the world through our Unveiling Youth Potential program. There are many who know they want to make changes to the challenges they see and live daily, and they are taking steps toward action – but what is the best way of encouraging them and supporting them as they start this journey?

In our programming, we take time to address ‘social entrepreneurship’, but what we are really addressing is the entrepreneurial spirit. The youth already have the ‘social’ component (the caring and compassion), but may require some learning around what to do with it. In her Harvard Business Review Blog post “Not Everyone should be a Social Entrepreneur”, Lara Galinsky(2102) speaks to the ways in which we can provide support for the social entrepreneurial spirit. “But if we can channel their altruistic energy and give them the tools, methodologies, and frameworks from the most successful social entrepreneurs, they will be changemakers, champions, and supporters of the work”. It is not necessarily about channeling youth into a professional career as a social entrepreneur, it is that the spirit of this type of action can be a part of and infiltrate everyday doing and thinking; it can infiltrate any career, any relationship, any individual, any community, and any organization – something I will be exploring as a follow-up article next month.

In his article “Teaching the Key Skills of Successful Social Entrepreneurs”, Scott Sherman(2011) lists what he states are seven important competencies that are essential for success as a social entrepreneur. We believe these seven skills are not only useful in defining the success of the social entrepreneur, but are also helpful in understanding the social entrepreneurial spirit and its important and interdependent link to caring, compassion, and respect.

Leadership “These people take initiative and action to solve problems.”

Optimism “These people are confident that they can achieve a bold vision, even when many other people doubt them. They have a strong sense of self-efficacy and a belief that they have control to change their circumstances.”

Grit “This is a combination of perseverance, passion, and hard work – the relentless drive to achieve goals, complete commitment to achieving their task.”

Resilience “In the face of adversities, obstacles, challenges, and failures, when things fall apart, these people rise to the occasion. They thrive in the most ferocious storms. They see failures as valuable feedback.”

Creativity and Innovation “These people see new possibilities and think in unconventional ways. They see connections and patterns where few other people would imagine.”

Empathy “These people are able to put themselves in the shoes of others, and imagine perspectives other than their own; this is one of the most valuable qualities for understanding the needs of others whom they serve.”

Emotional and Social Intelligence “These people are excellent at connecting with others and building strong relationships.”

When you are driven by the desire or felt responsibility to make positive change, when you see people suffering not only in your own community, but also in the world, and when you are overwhelmed by a sense of caring, compassion, and respect for humanity, the unquestionable need for leadership, optimism, grit, resilience, creativity and innovation, empathy, and emotional and social intelligence is undeniable. The spirit of these seven entrepreneurial characteristics alongside the spirit of caring and compassion brings not just an emotional response but also an actionable response founded on reason and the need for change.

The spectrum of social entrepreneurs – or those with a socially-minded entrepreneurial spirit – can and should be found in all parts of society. And moreover, the actions ‘undertaken’ by these individuals, or the challenges they are addressing, need not be confined by the common restraints of modern day business/financial venture. Rather, these individuals aim to offer an exchange of value through their undertakings, whereby the value is defined by the communities they care about, and they are likely to have a social impact or outcome instead of a financial profit.

This looks different depending on the individual, his/her community and his/her access to leverage points for change and influence. However, all individuals have an opportunity to tap into an entrepreneurial spirit in creating change, and more importantly, creating the kind of global community we are all looking to create.

Bridges and The Social Entrepreneurial Spirit

Today, what we can do is provide the space, education, and support for youth to live the social entrepreneurial spirit. At Bridges, our focus is on investing in human potential to enable the growth of a social entrepreneurial spirit and develop the necessary skills in those individuals who are ready, willing and passionate about improving the situation for themselves and their community. It is through this that we will see the changes needed in the world, to address the challenges, and more importantly, see them as opportunities to create a positive future for generations to come.

Whether you are a young student in high school who decided to tackle a social challenge of bullying by creating a poster campaign in your school, or a young Aboriginal woman who decides to start an afterschool yoga program on your reserve, or a Yemeni woman who is starting a coffee export company to offer an alternative crop to farmers rather then the local tobacco, or a mom fighting for the rights of your children, or a dad who starts a local soccer team, or a project manager in an oil and gas company looking to improve your companies’ community investment strategy – you are all social entrepreneurs and while the projects and outcomes look different – the similarities are the inherent spirit of caring, conduct, and self-authorization required for you to undertake social, political, environmental, local, national, or worldly challenges.

We are all in the business of adding value to society by how we allocate our time, money and talents; and whether we like it or not, these are the true indicators of what we care about. The main difference is the intention – the world doesn’t need more corporate business entrepreneurs – but rather the kind of entrepreneur who is willing to undertake caring and compassionate actions for all our communities.


Durieux, M.B., & Stebbins, R.A. (2012). Social entrepreneurship for dummies. Indianapolis, IN: Wiley Publishing, Inc.

Entrepreneur. (n.d.). In Merriam –Webster Dictionary online. Retrieved from

Galinsky, L. (2012). Not everyone should be a social entrepreneur. Retrieved from

Martin, R., & Osberg, S. (2007). Social entrepreneurship: The case for definition. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from

Sherman, S. (2011). Teaching the key skills of successful social entrepreneurs. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Retrieved from

Undertake. (n.d.). In Merriam –Webster Dictionary online. Retrieved from

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