Dropping the Modifier and Some Other Thoughts

Ryan Grant Little on why it might be time to get rid of the 'social' in front of entrepreneurship.

by Ryan Grant Little, August 31, 2017

#Perspective 9 (the others are in German): Ryan Grant Little, Serial Entrepreneur, Consultant and E&Y Entrepreneur (Social Enterprise) of the Year Winner 2016.

I don’t think I’ve ever been particularly comfortable with a lot of the nomenclature we use in ‘our sector’ (not crazy about that term either, now that I write it), even if I am responsible for perpetuating it to some extent. I have always been an entrepreneur, period, and feel a little bit precious—and discounted—when the modifier ‘social’ is in front of it. It makes me uncomfortable in the way that I alternately bristled and giggled when a friend and former colleague would declare to customs officers his profession to be ‘humanitarian’. 

Entrepreneurs are people who see broken and inefficient systems in the world and find ways to fix them. Entrepreneurial opportunities emerge when technology, policy, attitudes, and/or crises force a change to the status quo and create a void which we seek to fill. Since the entrepreneurial lifestyle is predicated on near or total obsession with the problem in focus, long hours, and ups and downs that test the most steadfast of souls, one had better care deeply about solving the problem. 

When I look at the startups I’ve co-founded, I can draw an absolutely perfect correlation between the organisation’s potential for public good and my own dedication to them. When we launched CanadaHelps.org, I saw that we could create a donations platform that would put every charity in the country on equal footing vis-à-vis e-commerce capacity and was willing to give myself over to the work and do whatever it took. When I started a company that upcycled waste plastic into industrial wax, I soon saw that, with there being a commercial market already for the waste plastic, I wasn’t solving a problem that mattered to me. The company spluttered out and so did I, falling into the deepest depression and burnout of my life. 

To be fair, I don’t mind terribly when we talk about ‘social entrepreneurs’ as a thematic vertical, the way we talk about ‘fintech’, ‘foodtech’, and ‘future mobility’ entrepreneurs. Where I get my nose out of joint is when, as is often the case, social entrepreneurs are talked about as a sort of second class citizenry—baseball’s Double A Binghamton Rumble Ponies, who don’t yet or may never have what it takes to make the Major League New York Mets. 

The irony today, of course, is that many of the biggest for-profit opportunities in entrepreneurship now fit squarely with what we think of as social entrepreneurship. The entrepreneur who wants to prioritize personal wealth and social or environmental good need not always choose. Unicorn breeders like Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins are adding firms to their portfolios that are focused on using satellite technology to improve crop yields to feed a growing planet, cracking the energy storage issue to power a low-carbon future, and using 3D printing and other distributive forms of high tech to extend health care to previously unreachable corners of the earth. These same investors are also, nevertheless and frustratingly, in an arms race to scale the next app that superimposes bunny ears on millennials’ digital faces, but at least they are also funding the entrepreneurs who are building solutions for a planet that is getting warmer, more populous, and less equal.

I’m proud to be a pledger and board member of the Entrepreneur’s Pledge—a loose network of established entrepreneurs who have committed to investment targets to improve the lot of people and the environment—and to see how attitudes are changing among fellow pledgers since we launched in 2015. To see how the traditional philanthropy approach of ‘make my fortune now; give back later’ is giving way to ‘always be doing something I care about.’ This past weekend, at our bi-annual retreat, my friend and idol (how many people get to say that?), Tom Szaky of Terracycle, compared profit to body fat—the right amount provides good insulation and something to draw on in lean times, but too much and in the wrong places can lead to serious illness. Tom is the epitome of someone who is making a massive contribution to society by solving problems he cares about. He is getting rich doing it too, even if the personal wealth factor isn’t why he’s doing it. Profitable businesses attract capital which in turn helps scale an intervention; indeed, this is perhaps the most effective mechanism to scale. It is when profit becomes the end in itself and not the means of creating something valuable that the trouble begins.

It’s the world upside down when we celebrate as heroes the people who make the hundredth chat platform while the people who are tirelessly innovating to solve the refugee crisis are on page ten filed under ‘human interest.’ But, if nothing else has become clear in the course of the last year, the world is upside down. By couching the work we do in terms like ‘social’, I believe we are artificially and unnecessarily shrinking our sandbox. We are excluding large swaths of capital because its owners have preconceived notions that equate ‘social’ with ‘charity’. Some of the important problems we are working on will never have the potential to make big financial returns and indeed some will always require that the majority of their funding come from charitable sources, and that’s ok. But let’s start by thinking big about how to approach our solutions before painting ourselves into a corner as the little siblings of the ‘real entrepreneurs’. Let’s identify and use the resources that are at our disposal and not put artificial boundaries around the work we do, just because it happens to be making the world a better place.

About the author


Ryan Grant Little is a Berlin-based consultant in the fields of impact investing, social innovation, technology for good, and corporate social responsibility. His work ranges from startup advice for entrepreneurs through to investment and evaluation strategy work for major charitable foundations. Previous roles include leading the social finance practice at the BMW Foundation, and co-founding StormFisher Biogas, one of the earlier energy-from-organics companies in North America. He is co-founder and advisor to CanadaHelps, a donations platform that has facilitated more than $700 million in charitable donations, for which he was awarded E&Y Entrepreneur of the Year (Social Enterprise) in 2016. He holds an MBA from the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario. Find him on Twitter


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For our launch we asked some of the thought leaders of the Social Impact Sector in Germany to write an article for us. They were given an open brief - they should write about something that has been bothering them in 2017. We were more than moved and inspired by the responses. We couldn't wait to share them with you.