Today’s blog post has us writing about what social entrepreneurship means to each one of us, and as I thought about this phrase, a phrase I heard and read about extensively during the application process for DukeEngage but that I now hear several times a day, I realized how starkly different my understanding of this phrase has become. Back in January, when I sat down with Matt and Katherine for my DukeEngage interview, I was genuinely excited about working in social entrepreneurship but admittedly had a very limited understanding of what it actually entailed. I knew that in a nutshell, social entrepreneurs are individuals who use innovation to tackle major issues in society. I also knew of examples of social entrepreneurial ventures from my research – a startup that employed homeless people to make sleeping bags for the homeless, a coffee shop that turned a struggling neighborhood into a social hub, and so on.
After arriving in Detroit, my understanding of social entrepreneurship began to expand even before I officially began working at TechTown. The day before my first day at TechTown, the cohort and I attended a mixer in Junction 440 with many members of the Detroit startup community, and it was at that event that I first met several ambitious, compassionate social entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to tackle a variety of social issues facing Detroit. In the days and weeks to come, especially at TechTown and in the wonderfully open environment that is Junction 440, I met more and more social entrepreneurs. We spoke about their ideas and projects and struggles, and when I now think of “social entrepreneurship,” I think of specific people and their stories.
Social entrepreneurship will always be one of those buzzphrases thrown around, but until you meet social entrepreneurs and hear their stories, you won’t fully understand the complex nature of their work. One of my projects involves doing market research for the client CityInsight, a startup that provides household residents with an application that displays and monitors their water usage in order to help them to pay their water bills. Through our first team meeting on Thursday and my research on the necessity of transparency in water payment plans, I’ve learned that CityInsight isn’t just simply a startup that has a goal to help society – it’s a startup that deals with real people’s physical and financial well-being, that likely won’t see positive revenue for at least 3-4 years, that is forced to think long-term in order to attract investment when it has yet to generate any short-term cash flow. Like CityInsight, other social entrepreneurs must not only think critically about how to solve social issues, but must face massive obstacles and often limited resources.
As a result, when I think of social entrepreneurship today, I don’t just think about startups looking to solve a problem – I think about people who, despite all odds, persevere in their dream of a better future.