May 21, 2024

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The 10 Most Successful Social Entrepreneurs

6 min read

In the past, many entrepreneurs chose to accumulate wealth in the private sector and become philanthropists later in life. However, now entrepreneurs can work to improve social issues through their businesses.

Globally, a new business model has emerged that meshes businesses with governmental and social organizations. Nonprofits and for-profit businesses can team up to form a hybrid business model, led by a new generation of social entrepreneurs. These leaders successfully tackle social issues while generating profit for shareholders.

Widespread use of ethical practices such as impact investing, conscious consumerism, and corporate social responsibility programs facilitated the success of the following 10 social entrepreneurs.

Key Takeaways

  • Social entrepreneurs look to establish new businesses that contribute positively to the greater good and give back to society.
  • While many socially conscious companies are for-profit, they do focus on solving social problems and often contribute to their communities or help those in need.
  • Social entrepreneurship is growing, with capital provided by investors looking at socially responsible investing and environmental, social, and governance criteria.

1. Bill Drayton

Bill Drayton is recognized as one of the pioneering social entrepreneurs of our time.

Drayton founded Ashoka: Innovators for the Public in 1980, which takes a multifaceted approach to finding and supporting social entrepreneurs globally.

Drayton also serves as chair of the board for Get America Working! and Youth Venture.

2. Rachel Brathen

“Yoga Girl” is the name of Rachel Brathen’s New York Times best-selling book and the handle for her Instagram account, which reaches two million followers.

In addition to showing her audience fresh yoga poses and tips, Rachel hopes to connect teachers with people in the online community who need healing.

“What if social media could become a social mission?” asks Brathen.

Her online channel was an “online studio” that offered health, yoga, and meditation services.

3. Shiza Shahid

As co-founder and global ambassador of the Malala Fund, Shiza Shahid manages business operations for Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Like Malala, Shahid was born in Pakistan. She initially reached out to Malala in 2009 and worked to organize a camp for her and other Pakistani girls. In 2012, Shiza flew to Malala’s bedside after she was targeted and shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls.

Inspired by Malala’s desire to continue campaigning for gender equality and education, Shahid decided to help Malala strategize her campaign. Shahid created the Malala Fund, which helps empower women and girls by advocating and spreading access to education.

4. Blake Mycoskie

After a trip to Argentina in 2006, Blake Mycoskie became the chief shoe giver and founder of TOMS Shoes, using some of his own money to launch the company.

TOMS pledged to donate one pair of shoes for every one sold and now expands the One-For-One campaign to support water, sight, birth, and anti-bullying initiatives. Through the TOMS brand, Mycoskie has raised awareness about issues like global poverty and health.

The company says it used money earned from consumer sales to donate $10,000 each to 10 nonprofit organizations in 10 different countries. The money was used to provide mental health services to those in need TOMS also gave away 100 million pairs of shoes as of 2020.

5. Scott Harrison

Scott Harrison left a life of luxury in New York City and headed for the shores of West Africa to volunteer with a hospital ship charity named Mercy Ships.

The trip was a watershed moment, and in 2006 Harrison founded charity: water, a nonprofit that provides safe and potable drinking water in 29 countries around the world.

The organization fulfilled 137,015 projects in developing countries. According to the charity’s 2022 annual report, it raised $100.9 million.

Social entrepreneurs often work on six areas, which are collectively known as the 6 Ps. These are people, problem, plan, prioritize, prototype, and pursue.

6. Muhammad Yunus

Professor Muhammad Yunus is renowned for the popularization of microfinance and microcredit, which serve as the cornerstones of the Grameen Bank, founded in 1983.

In 2006, Yunus was awarded the Nobel Prize for creating the Grameen Bank, which is based on the principles of trust and solidarity to empower villagers with the funding to pull themselves out of poverty.

According to the Grameen Bank, as of May 2022, 90% of its about nine million borrowers are women, who pay their loans back at a rate of 97%—a recovery rate higher than any traditional banking system.

This renowned professor has received international awards like the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010, and the Olympic Laurel in 2021.

7. Jeffrey Hollender

Jeffrey Hollender is well known as the former chief executive officer (CEO) and co-founder of Seventh Generation, a popular business for natural products.

He is now a leading consultant, speaker, and activist for corporate social responsibility. He has written seven books including “How to Make the World a Better Place.”

Hollender is co-founder and CEO of Hollender Sustainable Brands, which sells sustainable products for sexual and personal health, such as condoms, tampons, lubricants, and pads, among other things.

Hollender is an adjunct professor at New York University and co-founder and board chair of the American Sustainable Business Council; and a board member of various other organizations, including Greenpeace USA, Health Care Without Harm, and workers’ rights organization Verité.

8. Xavier Helgesen, Christopher “Kreece” Fuchs, and Jeff Kurtzman

These three co-founders of Better World Books—a B-Corp online bookstore that funds global literacy—all deserve recognition as successful social entrepreneurs. The founders met at Notre Dame University, where they tutored the football team and started collecting unwanted books to sell on the internet.

Helgesen is CEO and co-founder of ZOLA Electric, formerly Off Grid Electric, which provides renewable energy to homes in the off-grid world. Kurtzman previously held the CEO position at Aid Through Trade, a company that distributes handmade accessories from Nepal around the U.S., where he was responsible for a 125% growth in sales. He also co-founded the nonprofit Operation Incubation, which delivers low-cost, low-maintenance incubators to the developing world.

9. Marc Koska

Marc Koska re-designed medical tools, introducing a non-reusable, inexpensive syringe that can be used in underfunded clinics. This innovation safeguards against the transmission of blood-borne diseases.

Koska founded the SafePoint Trust in 2006, which delivered four billion safe injections in 40 countries via his auto-disable syringes.

The Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2015 cited Koska for his pioneering solution to a world health issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced a global policy on safe injections in February 2015.

10. Sanjit “Bunker” Roy

Sanjit “Bunker” Roy had a privileged upbringing in India. When Roy visited some of his country’s rural villages, he had a life-altering experience and decided to find a way to improve the socioeconomic inequities in his country.

He founded Barefoot College in 1972, a solar-powered college for the poor. Roy describes Barefoot College as “the only college where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher.”

What Is Social Entrepreneurship?

Social entrepreneurship is when a startup company is founded with a mission to promote social good. These are often for-profit ventures that leverage technology and ingenuity to solve problems of societal importance such as hunger, disease, and inequality as well as environmental issues.

What Is Socially-Responsible Investing?

Who Was the First Social Entrepreneur?

While there have been many businessmen focused on social issues throughout history, the first person to coin the term social entrepreneur was Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, in 1980. Today he is known by some as the “father of social entrepreneurship.”

The Bottom Line

These 10 inspiring social entrepreneurs use business to both generate profit and solve some of the world’s most daunting social problems. Innovation takes many forms, and it’s wonderful when insightful ideas can work to address global social issues. Social entrepreneurs take the road less traveled to build flourishing hybrid businesses with triple-bottom lines.


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