Purpose-driven entrepreneurs are a special breed. Determined to tackle social and environmental challenges with business as their tool of choice, these impassioned change-makers give us much hope for the future.
But their passionate pursuits aren’t easy. It’s hard enough to run a business. When you balance profitability with purpose, efforts are made harder still. Despite the added challenges, some brave, ever-persistent, and savvy folks have found ways to overcome. And they all did these five things on their path to success.
1. Ensure partners align with your values
The good news is we’re seeing a rising number of impact investors and others willing to support socially conscious businesses. Temper that reality, however, with an increase in those looking to jump onto the “social enterprise” bandwagon simply for its marketing cachet, without truly subscribing to its underlying belief system or sensibility.
Inauthentic partnerships can prove debilitating, as partners often require much in return for their support. And what they demand may not be consistent with the mission of the enterprise. I’ve witnessed too many entrepreneurs compromise their purpose through collaboration. Entrepreneurs must stay true to their mission by partnering only with those who align with their values. That may mean saying no to significant infusions of cash, but waiting for the right partner can lead to multiple payoffs.
Take Back to the Roots as an example. This social enterprise was founded by two UC Berkeley graduates, Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora, with a mission of reconnecting people to the source of their food and creating more sustainable, transparent products including a range of do-it-yourself urban farming kits.
Though they bootstrapped their business at the start, when it came time to look for funding, the founders were very particular. Today, their partners — to whom they credit much of their upward momentum — include such socially-minded investors as Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, Stonyfield Organics founder Gary Hirschberg, and author Michael Pollan. They haven’t looked back.
2. Embrace business skills and savvy
For a truly committed social entrepreneur, the purpose is essential to who they are, what they do, and why. It’s what gets them up every morning and keeps them going until late at night. That passion is motivational fodder for when things get hard, which they always do.
But social entrepreneurs must never forget that they’re running a business. To succeed, business skills and experience are not optional. They’re compulsory. I’ve seen impassioned business-men and -women forego that lesson, only to see their ventures fail due to inefficient business practices, operations, and decision-making. If you don’t have a background in business, take a course, learn new skills, and/or make sure to hire members of your team with the knowledge you lack. Your enterprise will thank you for it.
3. The purpose won’t sell itself
Never rely on the social story to the detriment of the product or service. While an increasing number of consumers are supportive of socially conscious businesses and willing to spend more in doing so, they’re also looking for quality products and services. Period.
What’s more, there’s an increasing number of competitors in the socially conscious space, making it harder and harder to compromise on quality without paying the price. Some social entrepreneurs understand this lesson well. Take Chicago-based Bright Endeavors, run by new moms with a mission of interrupting the generational cycle of poverty. The enterprise hires young mothers aged 18 to 24 to make beautiful soy candles and operate a votive candle rental business.
The social enterprise is not only helping these young women create more sustainable and empowered paths forward, but it’s also thriving. And that’s thanks, in part, to its determination to compete on equal footing with similar entry-level luxury products. While consumers are proud to uphold the mission of Bright Endeavors, they are delighted by the high-quality products the venture sells to such stores as Crate & Barrel and Whole Foods.
4. Don’t get stuck in the purpose
Passion is essential, but it’s important to remain flexible and open to when it’s time to pivot. That lesson is important for every entrepreneur but especially for social entrepreneurs, for whom purpose can prove blinding to realities on the ground.
Being mindful of the shortcomings in your approach or business model can mean the difference between meeting your mission and missing it. When Komal Ahmad decided to tackle the issue of food security, she found herself driving around with unused food in her truck, searching for organizations who needed it.
She eventually discovered that the initial approach was inefficient. That realization – and her openness to flexibility – led Ahmad to found Copia, a food recovery business that employs advanced technology to match need with waste. That pivot was essential to the company’s progress, one that enabled her to expand across the US and beyond.
5. Tell your story
Many social entrepreneurs fall victim to the belief that their mission will sell itself. It doesn’t. You may be in pursuit of an important cause which has the potential to make serious impact in your community or beyond. But that purpose isn’t enough to sell the product. With the proliferation of content filling our airwaves and social media streams, storytelling is imperative to advancing your social entrepreneurial mission.
That’s especially true when it comes to a business that may ask customers to take a certain leap of faith — or taste. Take Chirps Chips, co-founded by Laura D’Asaro, which makes sustainable protein products from crickets. To overcome the “ick” factor, the founders have not only produced tasty products — chips, protein powder, and cookie mix — they’ve also mastered the art of telling a story that shares their environmental impact (crickets use less water and greenhouse gases as other protein products) and “cool factor,” too.
Juggling business and social impact takes much effort and commitment. To be sure, social entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. But, for those determined to give it a go, these lessons can help bring you from ideation to success, and your purpose intact.
Elisa Birnbaum is the editor-in-chief of SEE Change Magazine and the author of “In the Business of Change; how social entrepreneurs are disrupting business as usual.”