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“What Makes A Social Entrepreneur?”


As we look around the space at the Impact Hub Boston, we see innovators working hard to contribute to the society and the world at large by bringing

about social change. As these social entrepreneurs come from different walks of life and fields of work, their innovations and inspirations take many different forms. However, there are some distinguishing characteristics that are common among these social trailblazers.

A couple months ago, I had a chance to sit down with one of our own, Bozhanka Vitanova, who conducted research on the topic “What makes a social entrepreneur?”  What follows is a video blog of our conversation.  It was a delight to work with Bozhanka and I found her research and findings to be both enlightening and inspirational.

About Bozhanka Vitanova

Bozhanka graduated with a Masters degree in International Economics and Finance in May 2016 from Brandeis International Business School where she was enrolled as a Fulbright Scholar. In the past two years, much of her research concentrated on social entrepreneurship, especially among the youth.

Currently, as Program Director for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Hassenfeld Family Innovation Center at Brandeis, Bozhanka works on building an innovation center at the University.  She is also a cofounder of Yunus&Youth, a social business that works with early-stage social entrepreneurs. The goal of this effort is to inspire, mentor, and help young entrepreneurs worldwide to develop skills necessary to be successful in their business endeavors.

Below are two published articles about Bozhanka’s research on social entrepreneurship:

[Audio Length: 07:29]


Question: You recently conducted a study on “What makes a social entrepreneur?” How and why did you choose this topic?

I spoke with 31 social entrepreneurs in major US cities, so I covered Boston, New York, San Francisco and L.A. All the people that I spoke to had started their enterprise being 34 years or younger. They have a sustainable business model, and the main reason they started the enterprise was solving a social problem.


Q: Did being a member of Impact Hub help with the study?

Of course, it was crucial in getting this going on the West Coast. Impact Hub actually made those first introductions that helped me get the first interview, so very helpful.


Q: What did you find through the study?

I found something that gives me hope, that social entrepreneurs can be made. Now, the making may need to happen a bit earlier than I was initially thinking. But there are certain experiences and frameworks that we can create that can create new generations of social entrepreneurs.


Q: What struck you most from conducting these interviews?

Entrepreneurial muscle memory, I think. In an entrepreneur, muscle memory is something that is created through certain formative experiences that instill the confidence in entrepreneurs-to-be that helps them later on to get past those inevitable trying moments that any entrepreneur needs to go through.


Q: Would you define “formative experiences and its relation to social entrepreneurship?

Those experiences have occurred between 10 and 14 years old, based on the information that I gathered. To give you an example, one of the entrepreneurs I spoke to, when she was 12 years old, she really wanted to do ballet, but her parents couldn’t afford it. So, she needed to find a way to make it happen for herself. She created a small business around it. She started babysitting, putting up flyers. And eventually, she could afford this and saw that when you put in a lot of effort, and when you’re persistent enough, you can make something happen. This was one small challenge that she managed overcame, which gave her the confidence next time, when she faced a bigger challenge.


All those challenges increase in magnitude. So, when the time came, when she was supposed to build a real enterprise, she already had that confidence that enabled her to go through all of the obstacles that come across the initial years, and of course, later on.


Q: Nine of the 31 entrepreneurs were 1st and 2nd generation immigrants. Do their experiences in a new culture and land qualify as “formative experiences”?

Gaining experience navigating and also seeing their parents navigate that experience. All those people witnessed their parents going through that uncertainty and also, going through a process of providing a living for their families and starting off very often from the bottom and building their way up was a very, very strong experience for the children and you could notice a difference with siblings, where the older siblings that were able to witness this whole process had a higher entrepreneurial tendency compared to their siblings.


They witnessed the process of putting a lot of effort into something, and putting a lot of work and not giving up and seeing results come out of this. And, also being comfortable with living with uncertainty and being comfortable with dealing with change.


Q: 14 of those whom you spoke to were serial entrepreneurs. What were their defining characteristics?

Something that was quite common for the serial entrepreneurs was very strong problem-solving skills. A few of them came from an engineering or science background. Or in general, they were just trained to see, to notice problems, and to think of solutions, or ways to address those problems. Entrepreneurs in general are very curious people, and when they see a problem, they cannot stop obsessing over it, and it causes them to think of ways to tackle it. So, many of the serial entrepreneurs had a strong problem-solving mentality.


Q: Are there other characteristics that are commonalities among the entrepreneurs?

Communication is often underrated, but it’s so important, especially in the beginning. You are building a new idea and you need to be able to communicate it in a very powerful manner. You need to sell it to customers. You need to sell it to your team. You need to sell it to investors, to stakeholders. Basically, to everyone. And you need to be very concise and persuasive about it. Many of the entrepreneurs had a strong writing background, and those that did not usually had a co-founder or a team member who had strong communication skills.


Q: So, networking is very important. How do successful entrepreneurs accomplish this?

Successful social entrepreneurs understand that networking is a two-way process. You need to be able to provide something of value to another person in order to get something that helps your cause. So they can understand what their unique contribution can be, and they approach your relationships in such a manner. Successful social entrepreneurs that have managed to get people on-board with their cause are authentic and genuine. They can show that they really care about their cause, and they’re consistent about it. They work on something over time, and they’re able to show progress, which kind of gives the sense of credibility that can get other people involved, and that can inspire others to support the social entrepreneurs in furthering their mission.


Q: Finding funding for social entrepreneurial efforts is not an easy task. How did they approach this?

Boot-strapping. Almost everyone boot-strapped. As painful as it is to go through that process and those initial torture years, looking back, they all find it to have been sort of a blessing in disguise. Being forced to work with very limited resources helped these entrepreneurs build processes that are very lean and efficient, and organizations that are able to operate with low cost. All of those social businesses now have a very strong earned revenue component. Having that low-cost structure, and an efficient, lean process helps in making earned revenue possible.


Q: What is one takeaway for the audience that they can implement into their efforts?

This is something that one of the social entrepreneurs shared with me. She said, “Solve real problems, stop entering business competitions, stop taking entrepreneurship courses. Just build something that delights someone.”