The Big Picture: Careers in Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprise

The world faces some pretty daunting problems, and conventional approaches simply aren’t sufficient. We need new solutions that combine the best of the nonprofit, for-profit, and government sectors to make large-scale, lasting change. Social entrepreneurs – and the organizations they launch – apply innovative, often risk-taking approaches to create scalable solutions.

But you don’t have to launch a whole new venture to build a career in social entrepreneurship. You can join an existing social enterprise aligned with your interests and passions, or work in an organization dedicated to advancing the field as a whole. That's one of the great things about this field: it may be driven by innovation and new ideas, but there are myriad ways you can approach it, and a wide variety of issues worth tackling.

  • Approximately 925 million people worldwide go hungry every day.1
  • More than half of Americans live in regions with dangerous levels of air pollution.2
  • Globally, at least one in every three women is abused during her lifetime.3

The lowdown

What can you expect if you decide to go into social entrepreneurship?

Risk-taking ahead

Being any kind of entrepreneur is inherently risky, but social entrepreneurs often go even further, tackling intractable problems in ways never before tried. You should be comfortable failing quickly and frequently (and bouncing back), being resourceful, and having an unpredictable career path. If you’re someone who likes routine, structure and security, you may want to look elsewhere.

1% inspiration and 99% perspiration

Building anything from scratch is hard work, so be prepared to channel your inner Thomas Edison. True innovators must be flexible and open-minded. But more importantly, you'll need follow-through to succeed, and be ready to roll up your sleeves to tackle the long to-do lists that turn the spark of inspiration into a viable venture.

Champions needed

Social entrepreneurs are driven by the issues they seek to address. As such, they're constant representatives of the causes they’re fighting for. You'll have to champion your organization relentlessly in your efforts to sway the skeptics and attract key partners. For social entrepreneurs who work with an issue that truly moves them – with an idea they truly believe in – this is what gets them out of bed. If not, it can be a challenging, thankless job.

Meet the Players

Who's working with social entrepreneurship, and how?

Social entrepreneurs, of course

Founders (and their dedicated teams!) generate the ideas and build the organizations driving this ecosystem. These folks tend to be "idea people" with big visions and the wherewithal to execute on them.

Social ventures

The organizations started by social entrepreneurs come in all permutations:

  • Nonprofit models that rely on an earned income stream, like Hot Bread Kitchen, generate income from their own activities to sustain the organization. While these nonprofits might also receive supplemental funding from grants and donations, they tend to be less dependent on these sources.
  • For-profit companies with a social mission like Honest Tea have a social and/or environmental mission embedded into their business model. These companies measure themselves by a double (financial and social) or triple (financial, social, and environmental) bottom line. Some go as far as to write these missions into their legal structure via emerging models like the B Corporation.
  • Hybrid structures emerge when a for-profit business and a related non-profit organization are directly linked. In these structures, one entity is essential to the other’s operation, as with Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation.


Groups like Social Venture Network provide resources, tools and training, and a broader community to support social entrepreneurs and their ventures.


Like many businesses, social entrepreneurs often turn to funders to help get their ventures off the ground and to scale them up.

  • Venture capital (VC) funds provide equity capital to ventures. Many traditional VC firms have a social or environmental branch with funds dedicated solely to social and/or environmental causes, such as the KPCB Green Growth Fund.
  • Venture philanthropy firms like the Acumen Fund apply business and venture capital strategies to sustainable social causes.
  • Incubators like Global Social Benefit Incubator (GBSI) help social entrepreneurs develop their business ideas and provide training, mentors, and seed funding.
  • Crowdfunding platforms like crowdsource funding for organizations directly from individuals.


Agencies support social entrepreneurship by providing information around social problems, enabling innovation with resources, and rewarding successes. Some of these efforts are being led by the White House’s new Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.