What is social enterprise?
There is so far no commonly agreed definition.
Is an enterprise social if it produces some sort
of social benefit? If so, in that sense, many
or indeed most traditional businesses for profit can
be considered social enterprises. Business enterprises
typically produce something of value for clients and
customers, otherwise they would cease to exist as business
enterprises. Earning thousands or millions of
customers can by definition be considered social benefit.
Social refers to groups of people, as contrasted
with one person. If a company produces a product
or service, it has to benefit a group of people sufficiently
for them to use that product or service. Owners
and stockholders benefit from financial profits gained
by the enterprise. Stockholders range from individuals
owning relatively large percentages of a company to
ordinary pensioners relying on income from micro-investments
into the company. Profits from almost any large
public corporation are shared among wealthy individual
stakeholders to humble, modest households who have holdings
in the company through an array of mutual funds managed
by government-regulated financial managers.
Consider for one prominent example Microsoft.
There is no question that Microsoft's products
have produced enormous profit along with providing broad
social benefit around the world. We can communicate
now in ways never before possible as a global social
group, using a standardized computer operating system.
That operating system in turn is based on personal
computer technology developed largely by IBM. Microsoft
produced the first OS for IBM personal computers, the
combination of which sparked the information revolution
and transformed the entire world. Both of those
innovations employ for global communications an electronic
communications protocol developed by US government,
an inter-network of computers. That internetwork
of computers was developed under the auspices of DARPA
(Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to
ensure constant computer communications among US military
operations in the event of a nuclear war that would
destroy entire cities. Parts of the network might
be destroyed, but as long as any computers and computer
operators remained, the internetwork would continue
to function. That internetwork of computers and
the standardized communications protocol to enable them
to talk to each other is called, for short, the Internet.
The Internet came from DARPA, created by US Department
of Defense as a direct response to the USSR launching
Sputnik in 1957. (NASA, and all that came from
NASA, was also a direct result of the Sputnik launch.)
The communications protocol developed to enable
the internetwork of computers is called internet protocol,
or IP All of those factors go into why you are
able to read this now, almost anywhere in the world.
Microsoft, IBM, and DARPA are three key factors
-- two public corporations and one US taxpayer-funded
agency -- and they are just that: key factors, but far
from the only players who have made this possible. There
are Intel, AMD, and other chipmakers who employed yet
another new technology, VLSI (very large scale integration)
to reduce computer circuits to microscopic dimensions.
The corporations involved in this almost fantastical
deployment of the machines and communications infrastructure
that we now rely on profited for themselves and their
shareholders, and certainly produced social and economic
benefit around the world. Those efforts were and
are so profound in influence as to transform human civilization
itself. That is the Information Revolution, and
it is nothing short of astonishing.
So it is safe to say that all these
players in the Information Revolution -- the enterprises
that created it -- have engendered almost immeasurable
social benefit by way of connecting people of the world
together and giving us opportunity to communicate with
each other, begin to understand each other, and if we
want, try to help each other.
It is that last phrase -- "try
to help each other" -- which is what the phrase
"social enterprise" is getting at. As
Bill Gates said in 2000, "poor people don't need computers." and rejected a business approach to alleviating poverty. That
statement served to mark the clear distinction between
what traditional capitalism did and
did not do. Gates' aim at that time was to
profit from people who could afford his company's products,
while those who couldn't were largely or completely
ignored. That has been the accepted limit of traditional
capitalism. It has been a marvelous means of social
benefit and economic advancement for many people. Nevertheless,
those excluded are just left out.
The term "social enterprise"
in the various but similar forms in which it is being
used today -- 2008 -- refers to enterprises created
specifically to help those people that traditional capitalism
and for profit enterprise don't address for the simple
reason that poor or insufficiently affluent people haven't
enough money to be of concern or interest. Put
another way, social enterprise aims specifically to
help and assist people who fall through the cracks.
Allowing that some people do not matter, as things
are turning out, allows that other people do not matter
and those cracks are widening to swallow up more and
more people. Social enterprise is the first concerted
effort in the Information Age to at least attempt to
rectify that problem, if only because letting it get
worse and worse threatens more and more of us. Growing
numbers of people are coming to understand that "them"
might equal "me." Call it compassion,
or call it enlightened and increasingly impassioned
self-interest. Either way, we are all in this
together, and we will each have to decide for ourselves
what it means to ignore someone to death, or not.
Notably, Gates came around in 2001 to what P-CED
had been advocating and doing
since 1996 -- since the first year of the mass
Information Revolution, which was made possible by release
to the masses of an easy-to-use hypertext reading device
called a "browser", from Netscape. Gates'
label is 'creative capitalism', which is just another
way of saying people-centered economic development.
Focus is capitalism with output modified to specifically
help people that traditional capitalism did not and
would not reach.