Social Entrepreneurship Across Cultures

This Blog post is the first of a series of pre-summit blogs, from the GLI cohort attending the Global Entrepreneurship Congress in Medellin, Colombia. In these blog posts the students discuss issues which they are likely to interrogate further in their research at the summit.

By Ellen Peacock

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Social entrepreneurship across cultures

A social entrepreneur is someone who ‘ holds innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change’.[1]

However, how can a successful social entrepreneur within one society apply this success to another society? Is this ever something that is achievable? And is it even desirable?

These are a series of questions that arose whilst I was researching the GEC. The extensive list of speakers on social entrepreneurship seemed positive for social justice. However, as I learnt more about the conference I began to question how an American based organisation can apply these ideals to the wider world.

For example gender is an area that has gained increasing attention in the field of entrepreneurship, and there are some talks on women on entrepreneurship at the GEC. Yet are the experiences of women not different across race, class and culture? Can I, a white woman from the UK, ever fully understand what could facilitate social entrepreneurship for women in South America, Africa, or the US?

For post-colonial theorists such as Said the answer would be no. Said argues that how we view reality is not objective, but is influenced by the structure of knowledge of a given period.[2] Therefore, if the structure of knowledge that surrounds our existence impacts our perception of the truth, should we even be discussing social entrepreneurship in a global conference?

It could be argued that we should not, as applying certain developed in one culture to another is dangerous. In the 1980’s neoliberal ideas about development were utilised by large organisations such as the IMF. They gave loans to South American countries with economic problems, on the condition that they initiated Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP’s). The Structural Adjustment Programmes, based on neoliberal economic principles, caused massive cuts in education, healthcare and other areas of government welfare that citizens depended upon.[3] This is a classic example of applying an idea that was developed in one culture to another culture, without fully acknowledging or understanding that cultural values cannot simply be remodelled to suit an agenda.

However, whilst this critique is relevant I think that it is important to look beyond ideological criticisms and past examples. Social entrepreneurship does have a positive social purpose. It is designed to solve society’s issues and improve lives for people. Yet this can only be achieved through careful consideration, and by avoiding the application of a ‘one size fits all’ approach to entrepreneurship .This is why I want to look at the extent to which the GEC is doing this. At the conference I want to know whether the speakers acknowledge their own cultural bias with regards to class, race and gender. I want to see whether they seek to go beyond this, or if they fall into the trap of being blinded to their own cultural ideals.

[1] Ashoka website (n.d.), https://www.ashoka.org/social_entrepreneur (accessed 10 March 2016).

[2] Margaret Kohn, ‘Post-colonial Theory’, in Ethics and world politics, ed. Duncan Bell (Oxford; New York, Oxford University Press, 2010), p.204.

[3] M., Fox, F., Fuento, R., Burbach, ‘Globalisation, Neoliberalism and the Rise of Social Movements’, in Latin America’s turbulent transitions: the future of twenty-first century socialism, ed. Roger Burbach, (London,  Zed Books, 2013), p.16.

About Ellen: 

Ellen is a third year politics and International Relations student studying at the University of Sheffield. She is Deputy Head of News at Forge radio and has a strong interest in current affairs. She is also interested in policy analysis and research, particularly in the area of social entrepreneurship.

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