What is a radical social entrepreneur?

Social entrepreneurs apply entrepreneurial initiative to solve social problems. Radical social entrepreneurs do the same — but at a deeper level.

What’s social entrepreneurship?

In 1971, Mimi Silbert founded the Delancey Street Foundation, the “university of the streets.” Delancey Street is an educational center for former junkies, pimps, prostitutes, robbers, and others. It has blossomed into a multi-million dollar enterprise that has helped tens of thousands turn their lives around.

In 1983, Nobel Peace prize winner Mohammad Yunus created Grameen Bank, which lends to the poor. Billions of dollars in loans have been given by Grameen — and repaid. And millions of people have benefited from these “microloans.”

Both of these are examples of social entrepreneurship — when an entrepreneur focuses not just on profit, but on solving a social problem. Delancey Street and Grameen Bank are scalable, revenue-generating ways to help the poor.

They are both wonderful projects. But they are not enough.

Although they help those in need, they are not actively changing the systems which lead to crime, poverty, famine, or lack of credit. They are helping alleviate symptoms, not treating the disease.

Radical social entrepreneurship: the next step.

Radical social entrepreneurs (RSEs) share these goals, but take things to the next level. They create ideas and projects to help evolve law, governance, community, education, and culture. They focus on changing the systems that lead to poverty, crime, and other social problems.

RSEs are not satisfied with the social entrepreneurship of the past. Physical technology like computers or water pumps and traditional social businesses like Grameen or Delancey Street are great, but they are not enough to solve today’s big problems. So RSEs focus on our social technology: the rules and systems that shape our lives.

RSEs imagine a world of start-up schools, new forms of governance, entrepreneurial communities, neighborhood or city-scale incubators, new legal systems to jumpstart innovation, and widespread cultural shifts toward kindness, meaning, and collaboration. This is the world of the radical social entrepreneur.

For example, a world with widespread access to good education means we need radically new models for learning. Skillshare, a new start-up ‘skill exchange,’ democratizes the tools of education and turns communities into classrooms, cafes into universities, and everyone into students of everyone else.

There’s abundant evidence that mass poverty is largely due to poor legal institutions. Bad laws keep people from starting businesses and keep new ideas from coming to life. What if instead of helping a few poor people, radical social entrepreneurs created new legal systems that brought millions, and then billions, to full-blown prosperity? The Free Cities Institute aspires to do just that.

Protecting the environment and providing social safety nets which are politically and economically resilient are major challenges. Legal and governance innovations like Endowment Zones can safeguard our natural world and help the poor.

These three projects show what can be achieved through radical social entrepreneurship. But they only hint at what could be accomplished in a world where everyone feels responsible for improving social systems to end poverty and hardship.

Don’t think you can make a difference? Major innovations often come from the outside. A radical social entrepreneur can come from any discipline — an artist, CEO, technologist, writer, guru, or inventor.

The important thing is that they are not interested in merely copying the old models of the past. Instead they use social entrepreneurship to cause paradigm shifts in law, governance, community, education, and culture.

NEXT: What does an RSE need to know? »

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  1. [...] This is a recurring theme on this site — physical technology is not enough. We need as many people as we can innovating in community, education, law, governance and culture. For more on this see our introduction page. [...]

  2. [...] Feynman’s lesson is quietly anti-authoritarian, and it should be near the heart of anyone interested in radical social entrepreneurship. [...]

  3. [...] points up a log­i­cal link between the gath­er­ing momen­tum behind the MOOC and the notion of rad­i­cal social entre­pre­neur­ship. In a post enti­tled: ‘A class­room of thou­sands’: Dis­rupt­ing entre­pre­neur­ial [...]