Why Social Entrepreneurship Matters

Tom Moliterno
Tom Moliterno

Tom Moliterno is the Vice Dean and Associate Dean of Research and Engagement at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. He also holds the Earl W. Stafford Professor in Entrepreneurial Studies. He shares his thoughts on how his first job influenced his current research about the motivations of social entrepreneurs­­—and why social entrepreneurship is having a moment.

What is social entrepreneurship?

There is a range of definitions for social entrepreneurship. It’s a space that is still emerging; it’s a concept that people are working out how to operationalize.

Here’s how I personally define social entrepreneurship: Social entrepreneurship is about using market mechanisms to create social value. It’s focused on understanding how markets are very powerful in affecting behavior and then leveraging those behaviors to create value that’s of social benefit.

Did you have an “a-ha” moment when you realized social entrepreneurship was going to be one of the focal points of your career?

My first real job was actually with an eco-tourism company. We didn’t use the term “social entrepreneurship” back then.

Actually, I never really thought it through this way, but maybe this is why the definition of social entrepreneurship I’ve given you resonates with me.

You may remember hearing back in the 1980s about those little baby white seals that used to get clubbed to get to death [for their pelts]. Greenpeace received a lot of headlines for putting an end to that hunt, but actually the organization that created the most legislative impact was the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

The people who did most of the hunting were fisherman who lived on the Magdalene Islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in Quebec. The seal hunt was their winter income, so when the seal hunt ended, these people essentially didn’t have income during those months. IFAW wanted to create economic opportunities for the Magdalene fisherman in a way where they would value the seals and benefit from them without killing them.

IFAW helped establish Natural Habitat Adventures, which was founded by my brother-in-law, Ben Bressler, and is where I subsequently worked.

Natural Habitat essentially created a winter tourism destination around the Magdalene Islands’ seals and engaged the local community in this new industry. The idea was: Let’s bring a bunch of people there every winter, fill up the hotel rooms for three weeks, eat in the restaurants, and hire people to be bus drivers and tour guides.

In the early 90s, Seal Watch was a pretty spend-y destination. Tourists helicoptered out to the ice flows and could actually see the baby seals, who didn’t move very fast, and tourists were able to get great pictures. It became a real ecotourism success story; the seals were now worth more alive than dead.

[Editor’s note: The Harp Seal Watch tour has since been suspended.]

After a few years of working for my brother-in-law at Natural Habitat, IFAW recruited me and I ran its advocacy campaign to protect those seals. Natural Habit sold the Seal Watch tours, and IFAW, where I worked, used the Seal Watch tour and the economic value the tours created as one of our tactics in the overall seal campaign.

I’ve always thought about Natural Habitat as a social venture or as social entrepreneurship, but I’ve never thought about whether my experience at the organization was where my initial interest in social entrepreneurship came from.  It’s something I certainly have cared about for a long time.

Tell us about your research:

My academic research to date—the work I’m known for—is not directly focused on social entrepreneurship. However, since I was appointed the Earl W. Stafford Professor in Entrepreneurial Studies Management, I have had the opportunity to redirect some of my research efforts.

My colleague Bogdan Prokopovych, a lecturer at Isenberg, and I are in the very early stages of designing a study that’s going to try to tease out from social entrepreneurs how much of their motivation is focused on the social part and how much is focused on the entrepreneurship piece.

If a social entrepreneur is focused on the social aspect of a venture, she might say: I really want to make the world a better place and I know I can use market mechanisms to make it happen. But if a social entrepreneur is more focused on the entrepreneurial piece, she would say: I really want to be a financially successful entrepreneur and it would be kind of cool if I am able to reach my goal doing something socially valuable, too.

Why the growing interest in social entrepreneurship?

For the current generation of undergraduates and recent graduates, social entrepreneurship falls right into their wheelhouse. Students today want to feel like their work life is making a difference in some manner.

Social entrepreneurship comes up in conversation a lot with not just our young alumni, but with senior alumni who’ve been in the workforce for 20 or 30 years.

It’s really surprising to me how many people who led what we might consider “traditional careers” in marketing or banking are now saying: The thing that I’m really interested in now is this social space.

I met with one of our senior alumni recently, an entrepreneur who works in digital media. He figures he has two big companies left in him and told me, “One of the companies is going to be a social venture because this is just an area that’s just blowing up. There are venture firms out there now that are trying to figure out the right investment models.

I’m increasingly aware of and fascinated by the degree to which creating social value is becoming an important part of how people at all different seniority levels think about their careers.

Creating social value has become much more of a common component of our cultural understanding of value creation and adding a social component seems to be spanning generations.

Additional Resources:

Interview has been edited and condensed.