“Systems change (…) is messy and complicated, and it takes more than businesses. It takes nonprofits and governments and everything in between because no one organization can grow to the size of the problems we face,” says Daniela Papi Thornton, a leader and educator on systems-led social intervention.  

So what is social entrepreneurship, and what role does it play in inspiring systems change?

The meaning behind the buzzword often gets lost in translation. We become consumed with the word’s sentiments and the definitions it holds, rather than looking at the reality it presents. 

A social entrepreneur takes the spirit of entrepreneurship within a broken system of limited resources and misplaced opportunities for the simple means of creating value and impact for what truly matters: our people and our communities. 

Social entrepreneurship involves impact-driven strategies.
Photo from Biji-biji Initiative/Me.reka.

Social entrepreneurs are a part of the solution. We are trying to change the system. Yet by defaulting to a discussion based on definitions, it becomes harder to see the intrinsic value of the created impact. It becomes easier to think that maybe it’s just a business trying to do good, when in fact, it involves an impact-driven strategy with a self-sustaining business model to make sure the good doings don’t stop. 

The goal is always to focus on what’s needed when it’s needed

We may choose to equip the social entrepreneurship model or we may choose to do it another way. Social entrepreneurship just happens to be one of the driving forces. It’s a means to an end, rather than the end goal. There are many ways to go about creating impact and adding value to our communities but what matters most is that it gets done. 

Though some social entrepreneurs start a business with the element of doing good being the main drive, they also emphasise doing good by leveraging the economics of a business-oriented structure. If it doesn’t work, these changemakers are not afraid to change it up and try something new. Because it’s not about the money, it’s about solving the problem. It’s about questioning the assumptions that exist and looking at ways we can unlock underutilized resources, such as social, human, technological and financial capital. 

The relentless pursuit to improve society.
Photo from Biji-biji Initiative/Me.reka.

Whether they work with governing bodies to implement policy changes, write books, work with corporates, become activists or even hug the occasional tree, the end goal remains undeterred—a relentless pursuit for the betterment of our society. 

There’s a spectrum of impact-based models

From your co-operatives and community-owned businesses to social enterprises, ethical businesses, and philanthropic organisations. Ultimately, each model serves its unique purpose, and no one organisation can solve any problem in its entirety. What really matters in this space, is accountability and transparency to the communities and various stakeholders that these organisations work with. 

For Biji-biji Initiative and the other impactors in our space, it has never been about the products we sell. That has never been our ethos. Instead, we aim to inspire change. To empower people to question the products they purchase and question how they are made. To make tools and technologies more accessible. All in a collective effort to do better with what we are given. 

It’s so much more than a transactional relationship

It’s about changing the assumptions we hold in society to the problems we face and changing our methods of tackling them to ensure we never have to face them again. 

Whether you call us social entrepreneurs or not, the umbrella terms will always fall short of catching the true nature of the impact. Because, as Daniela puts it, we are systems change leaders, not social business founders. With a relentless pursuit of improving community livelihoods in Malaysia. 

So that’s what we will continue to do, no matter the labels that momentarily define us.

Watch Daniela Papi Thornton’s TEDx Talk on reclaiming social entrepreneurship