Assaf Weisz
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You don’t often expect to have conversations about social enterprise with strangers on the subway. So I was somewhat surprised when a passerby in his twenties pointed at me from across the underground hallway leading to the turnstiles. He smiled when he approached close enough to read the cover of the Getting To Maybe copy pinched between my elbow and ribs while I fiddled with change.

“That’s a great book,” he said.

“Yea, h-how do you know it?” My mind was still catching up to the moment.

We took the train downtown together. It turns out he was recently released from a three-year stint in prison. There, his passion grew for creating an experiential education initiative that would stem the flow of at-risk youth into the legal system. He intuitively understood the need for systemic change.

A few weeks later, a coffee shop conversation with a client was interrupted by someone who had overheard the term “social enterprise” and was excited to meet people who shared his vernacular. Just recently, another similar encounter while on public transit translated to an applicant for our pitch competition and other events.

Social enterprise: Canadian society is starting to tune in

Our conversations and debates about the form and future of social enterprise are no longer limited to the rooms in which they take place. And that means we have to be especially cognizant of how we communicate about it, because this stuff can get confusing.

Thought leaders, practitioners, and promoters of the field have to do a better job of sorting through the clutter of various terms and models when educating outward. Dev Aujla of DreamNow was the first person who clearly articulated to me this sector’s appeal to young Canadians. He boiled it down to “making money and changing the world.” At Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada (YSEC), we’ve followed his lead by talking about “making a living by making change.”

There also needs to be a more acute awareness of the variance in our audiences. Young people are beginning to flock to the sector, but it’s not because they’re looking for alternative revenue streams for their charities. Most don’t have charities to begin with. In our experience at YSEC, a majority of twenty-somethings interested in social enterprises are starting “stand-alones,” social enterprises that aren’t tethered to any existing entity. And about half of them prefer to start social enterprises incorporated as businesses.

Social responsibility in business

Yet few of the definitions capture this. Depending who is asked, social enterprise is either a revenue generating stream of a nonprofit, or an enterprise that hires marginalized people. Or it’s an enterprise that delivers products and services that create social value, or if you’re incorporated as a for-profit, that makes you a social business in some eyes. All of these models are important, and all deserve a slice of attention.

However, strict definitions won’t ultimately suffice because the growing undercurrent of interest in social enterprise isn’t about excitement over new business models, and it isn’t only about sustainability for nonprofits and charities either. Something far more profound is taking shape. We are witnessing a paradigm shift of thinking and action in this country; it’s about how change should be made, which career paths are valued, the relationship between private and public pursuits, and truly valuing social return. It’s a shift that cannot be pinned down by any one definition. It is much more aptly described as a movement.

Assaf Weisz is executive director of the Young Social Entrepreneurs of Canada – the nation’s hub for young social entrepreneurs – and a supporter of their social enterprises.

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