When you use a word enough times it tends to lose its meaning. "Social" is hitting that point, and that's a good thing. Truth is, "social" entrepreneurship really never was a thing, not because good wasn't coming from the companies that espoused it, but rather because it was redundant.
All entrepreneurship is social entrepreneurship, just as all business helps provide a social good. The moment we come to accept that, the clearer our view will be of how entrepreneurship can help better our nation and our society.
Business owners seem to be the last class of people who are perfectly acceptable to stereotype and demonize. Think about it: Perfectly reasonable, liberal people who brag at their grocery co-op about how open and accepting they are of others will immediately devolve into the worst kind of stereotyping when it comes to capitalists. Business owners are greedy, mistreat and underpay workers, engage in gender and racial discrimination in hiring and put profits over people.
Even if that demonization isn’t overt, there’s the soft bigotry of playing up stories about businesses that do extraordinarily positive things. When a CEO decides to pay for college for his employees’ children, or a company donates products for every sale, these decisions are treated as an anomaly. It isn’t far from when people would show their true racial bias by calling some African Americans “well spoken.” The issues are different, as are the stakes, but the underlying impulse is the same.
History has proven beyond argument that companies provide a social and societal good. If anything, instances of corporate malfeasance – Union Carbide in India, the fraud of Enron, and the prevaricating poltroons who sold us Sham-Wows – are the exception, not the rule. The villains with the black hats are indeed the black swans of corporate and capitalist behavior. Most companies are the cats who didn’t get stuck in the tree, so they don’t warrant our attention.
But, for some reason, entrepreneurs themselves have never felt comfortable with capitalism, at least not how it’s positioned in cocktail-party discourse or the mainstream media. So they started calling themselves “social entrepreneurs” or saying they practice "conscious capitalism" (implying, naturally, that all other capitalism was unconscious). Buy our shoes and we will make sure poor kids get a pair, too. Buy our fishing lures and we will save a snail darter.
It’s so pervasive that one can’t even get venture-capital funding without somehow sacrificing at the altar of social responsibility. “What’s your social hook?” I once heard a VC ask a potential investment.
Yet, that’s what it is: a hook. Social responsibility and social entrepreneurship might seem like do-gooding and almost certainly are based on an impulse to try to do right by the world at large, but they are, at bottom, a marketing hook and a competitive positioning. Buy our products and you will feel better about yourself. The bastards who run our competition want kids to starve.
If we were intellectually honest, we would see how this is bunk, and we’d also recognize that companies have been performing real social good for years. Startups in particular are designed around one thing: an innovative product or approach to solving a customer’s problem or need. When you create an app like Uber that allows you to get a car quickly, you save a customer time. That time is a gift of social good, particularly when used to engage more deeply with family or be more productive at work solving other customers’ problems. What’s more, a company like Uber creates jobs, which allows employees to use their own skills and labor to make more money, better themselves and feed their families. The simple act of starting that company and providing a service helps others improve their lives, without some hokey, feel-good marketing hook.
Large companies, in fact, have been doing this for years. Folks like to hold up ExxonMobil as the Jun Horde of business, poisoning the environment, gouging our gasoline prices and racking up profits that benefit only executives and shareholders. The truth is different. Exxon is among the world’s largest investors in renewable energy, and it’s also among the largest sources of government tax revenue (which governments – local, state and federal – use to fund their own social programs). Exxon is using profits to improve environmental and social conditions around the world. It always has. It just doesn’t bend over backwards bragging about it.
Also, think of all the charitable foundations funded by corporations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is doing remarkable things around the world. Where did that money come from? That greedy, monopolistic and predatory company Microsoft, which spent much of the last few decades twisting the knickers of regulators and putting competitors out of business, in pursuit of being among the world’s most profitable and valuable enterprises. The Gates Foundation also gets a healthy dose of capital from Warren Buffett, the archetypal capitalist whose wealth even the 1-percenters envy. Both built successful businesses that disrupted markets, put companies out of business, put people out of work and increased value for shareholders. Yes, they put “profit over people” at times, but would you dare criticized the commitment to social good these business owners have made over the past few years?
You cannot have personal charity without rich people, and you can’t have corporate charity without profits. If you want to attack capitalism, you are hobbling charity and hurting people who need it most. It’s that simple.
The overwhelming majority of business leaders, from startup founders to Fortune 500 CEOs, are not greedy demons who are hoarding gold and Bitcoin in their Hamptons vaults and climbing into their Bentleys off the hunched backs of their minimum-wage employees. Characterizations like that are simply offensive and unhelpful to the national dialogue.
Rather, these business owners, managers and entrepreneurs know that profit flows from ethical behavior, treating employees well and dealing fairly with customers and competitors. They struggle daily with issues of how to invest their profits in building and rewarding their teams, while providing dividends to the investors who helped fund and foster their enterprises. They want a diverse workforce, and fret over how to ensure their employee pool mirrors the gender and racial makeup of their broader communities. They think constantly about how to create affordable products that improve the daily lives of customers.
That’s true social commitment, and it’s the rule, not the exception. Social good flows through the arteries of all capitalism and entrepreneurship in particular. It’s high time we recognize that all entrepreneurship and business provides a social good and leave the “social” label to the marketing firms.
Related: The Myth of the Have-Nots