What is a social enterprise

I’m not going to lie, I had to do my own Googling of “What is a social enterprise” to get a more comprehensive definition of this term than the one I had previously formulated in my head. While I wasn’t far off, there are still some important characteristics that are worth mentioning.

First off, a social enterprise is a business.


However, instead of focusing on creating as much profit as possible for the owners/shareholders, a social enterprise also places a firm emphasis on tackling social problems. The positive social impact is just as important as its financial bottom line. Well, maybe not just as important. For most of them, the financial bottom line should always squeak by on the margin because if you neglect that, you’ll be out of business and not be helping anyone any time soon.

But the key takeaway here is that these organizations use business practices and the power of the marketplace to advance their social and environmental agendas. And if you’ve learned anything about me by now, you’ll know I’m a HUGE fan of using the power of the marketplace. The supply and demand loop is basically the most sustainable mechanism on Earth, so why not tap into that for social good??

Lastly, social enterprises can be structured as for-profits or non-profits. That last bit I didn’t know. But it makes sense. You can technically run a revenue model-based business and then give away all your money. Personally, I’d keep it. But hey, I’m selfish.  

So without further ado, here is my list of 5 amazing, super innovative social enterprises that are out there kicking butt to change the world:

1. Simpa Networks

Simpa Networks

There are currently 1.6 billion people in the world who lack access to electricity and another 1 billion with extremely unreliable access. Simpa Network's mission is to reach every one of them. Simpa sells “solar-as-a-service” to households and small businesses in rural India that either have very unreliable energy service (i.e. constant power outages, electricity for less than 12 hours a day, etc.) or who are completely off the grid. And on top of the access to electricity the organization provides, it’s solar energy, adding some awesome environmentally-friendliness!

Customers make a modest initial payment to have a solar panel system installed, and then pay off the unit over time by making small payments on their mobile phone. Because the unit produces energy all on its own, once the system is paid off, the customers become completely self-sufficient with clean, reliable energy!

2. Literacy Bridge

Ideology: Literacy Bridge

According to the people at Literacy Bridge, “Over 750 million adults are illiterate and 800 million people farm in order to feed their families on their earnings of less than a dollar a day”. However, in the most remote areas of developing countries, it is nearly impossible for illiterate adults to access the materials and information necessary to acquire new farming skills to increase crop yields. Likewise, the demographic challenges impose harsh barriers to the spread of information on sanitation and the essentials of maternal and newborn health. Learning these skills is essential for communities to survive and thrive as they pull themselves out of extreme poverty.

This is where Literacy Bridge’s flagship initiative, The Talking Book, comes to the rescue. The product is exactly what it sounds like: an inexpensive audio book that disseminates up-to-date agricultural and health-related information to rural, illiterate populations.

3. BioLite


Ok. This company and product line are absolutely incredible. I want to work for them. I mean...Jk Global Citizen 4eva!! Right boss? (…whew). BioLite HomeStove is an innovative wood-burning stove that significantly reduces the amount of smoke produced while generating electricity for those billions of off-grid households I mentioned earlier. Why is smoke reduction such a huge deal? Because according to Jonathan Cedar, BioLite Co-Founder and CEO:

“Half the planet still cooks on smoky open fires, killing more people annually than AIDS, Malaria, and tuberculosis, combined.

Holy sh*t. Did you know that? I didn’t know that. I feel like I should know that... The stove this company offers is so efficient that it cuts toxic emissions and carbon by 90%, reduces wood consumption by 50%, and produces enough by-product energy to power a mobile phone or LED lights!

4. Project Peanut Butter

Touted as the most effective method to treat severely malnourished children throughout the world, Project Peanut Butter is a revolutionary enterprise that has launched a product that is not only energy-dense, but resists spoilage and doesn’t require cooking. Back in the 1990’s when PPB founder Dr. Manary was studying the traditional method of treating malnourishment, he found that the recovery rates were incredibly disappointing. Back then, malnourished children were treated with a milk-based formula, and only a depressing 20-45% of them recovered.

In collaboration with the World Bank and French company Nutriset, Dr. Manary developed “Ready to Use Therapeutic Foods” (RUTF), consisting of roasted ground peanuts, powdered milk, vegetable oil, sugar, and vitamins/minerals. Using this new formula, malnutrition rates have jumped to 75-95%!

5. SoleRebels

Typically, I can’t stand “social enterprises” that peddle consumer goods. All those obnoxious boutiques in Brooklyn or San Francisco that sell socially-conscious jewelry and throw pillows and other worthless crap that no one really needs, ugh. To me, it’s still emblematic of the massive overconsumption problem that exists in the developed world and of our sucking dry of the world’s precious resources.  


But this Fair Trade and eco-friendly shoe company, I genuinely like. First off, people actually need shoes. It’s a totally justifiable purchase. SoleRebels trains and employs highly marginalized populations in Ethiopia to craft footwear that is made locally out of recycled, organic, and bio-based materials. The message of SoleRebels is that for developing countries to enjoy lasting development, they must create and grow global brands, just like developed nations do. I love this.

People everywhere, especially in developing nations, are tired of foreign aid attempting to do all the development work. WE are part of the generation that will see this innovative social enterprise momentum continue, to the benefit of all. I need to start coming up with some ideas...  

In the meantime, go buy some shoes. 


Defeat Poverty

5 Game-Changing Social Enterprises You Didn't Know About

By Alison Shea