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The state of social entrepreneurship

D’Amore-McKim School of Business Assistant Professor Sophie Bacq answers questions about the findings and trends uncovered at The 14th Annual Social Entrepreneurship Conference recently held at Northeastern University.


November 20, 2017

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Q: The conference convened 90 researchers from 16 countries. What themes did they focus on?

Leading experts in the field presented and discussed their latest research on a variety of topics related to social entrepreneurship—the pursuit of social or environmental goals by use of innovation, creative thinking, risk-taking and entrepreneurial commerce. Social entrepreneurship, through its innovative and bottom-up approach, has the potential to address society’s most intractable issues such as poverty, hunger, illiteracy, homelessness, or pollution.

Through thought-provoking paper sessions, high-quality discussions, and outstanding keynote speeches by Tyler Wry, Jeffrey Robinson, Julie Battilana, Andrew Charman and Leif Petersen, researchers from various disciplines had the opportunity to advance research and thinking on social entrepreneurship. Among popular themes discussed at this 14th edition of the conference were motivations and intentions to engage in social entrepreneurship, outcomes and measurement, ecosystems, and social entrepreneurship across contexts.

Q: You have been studying social entrepreneurship for more than 10 years. What are your primary research interests?

I examine social entrepreneurship from different levels of analysis—individual, organizational, and societal. My research at one level generates insights that help me further comprehend the phenomenon at another level. I am very interested in understanding the individual-level determinants of social entrepreneurship. While at first I mostly aimed to distinguish and contrast social entrepreneurs with commercial entrepreneurs and explain their differences through traits, socioeconomic background, education, or gender, I have become increasingly interested in the mechanisms that explain one’s engagement in social entrepreneurship.

One of my recent projects with Elisa Alt of Anglia Ruskin University draws on prior research insights, which suggest that empathy—responsivity to the experiences of another—drives social entrepreneurship, and elicit two mechanisms that transform empathy into social entrepreneurship intentions. One is self-efficacy, or the confidence in accomplishing tasks associated with social entrepreneurship. The other is perceived social worth. That is, one’s perception that one’s action to bring about social change and improve the status quo will be valued and appreciated by primary target users, such as microfinance clients, patients at an innovative healthcare clinic, or trainees in an education program. We find that both mechanisms transform empathy into social entrepreneurial intentions in a complementary manner. These findings are particularly important as they can guide practitioners and educators as to the types of perceptions they need to instill or increase in empathic individuals who are considering becoming social entrepreneurs. Not every empathic person is going to become a social entrepreneur, but we now know that those who feel both capable and valued are more likely to do so.

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