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25 Mar 2013 Back

Gen Y, Social Entrepreneurship and a New Business Model

VIEWPOINT: The involvement of ‘millennials’ in social entrepreneurship highlights how the corporate world can benefit from engaging a generation ambitious to change the world. In this article* Social Entrepreneurship and Gen Y – A Match Made in Heaven? co-authors Giles Hutchins and Martina Mangelsdorf elucidate:

'A lot has been said and written lately about the rise of social entrepreneurship. Not only does the world suffer from an increasing number of challenges that need solutions, it also seems that more and more people feel drawn to a career as a social entrepreneur.

While a business entrepreneur typically measures performance in profit, a social entrepreneur also measures positive returns to society and the wider environment. Social entrepreneurship is commonly associated with the voluntary and not-for-profit sectors but it does not necessarily exclude for-profit business objectives. Common initiatives include community interest activities, social engagement and education, micro credits, cooperative farming, business development, supporting arts or vocational training.

Born between 1980 and 1995, many from the millennial generation have embraced social entrepreneurship as a valid and desirable career track – seeing it less as a ‘career’ in the traditional sense and more as a purposeful path in life. Several colleges and universities have established programs that focus on educating social entrepreneurs and FORBES recently published their annual “30 under 30” listing of innovators and entrepreneurs for 2012. Social entrepreneurs were added as one of six new categories this year, ranging across 15 fields from Art & Style to Technology.

Similar to the young disruptors selected by FORBES, countless Gen Y talents are impatient to change the world and social entrepreneurship offers them a great outlet to do so.  It simply resonates with some of the typical Gen Y values that characterize this generation: collaboration; accessibility; sustainability; globalization; self-expression:

Collaboration - Most social entrepreneurs work within teams and networks for change. Becoming part of an entire movement means to feel a sense of affiliation. People who share the same goals and principles energize each other. The Y Gen, used to connecting via numerous social channels, has a greater ability to build relationships and to realize value from networks than do previous generations.

Accessibility - Gen Yers accept and promote collaborative consumption since they see sharing as more important than having, according to Viacom’s 2012 report The Next Normal. In contrast to previous generations, Gen Y does not view ownership as an essential measure of personal success. In the Western world, most have grown up in abundance and giving access to those less fortunate - be it access to education, food or healthcare - is a popular social entrepreneurial business proposition.

Sustainability - Having grown up in an era when global warming, climate change, pollution, energy saving and natural disasters seemed commonplace, it is no surprise that Gen Y is highly conscious of the planet’s state and the environmental issues they will inherit. They see CSR and sustainable business as going hand-in-hand with social entrepreneurship, which offers them a direct way to contribute through helping rather than hurting society and the environment.

Globalization - Gen Yers have grown up with a global perspective that turns the world into an interconnected, yet diverse community in which people are all valued equally and yet uniquely. Gender, race, religion, sexual orientation – Gen Y embraces diversity and finds meaning in contributing to social change which addresses discrimination against all aspects of humanity.

Self-expression - Gen Y was raised to believe that anything is possible. “Just follow your purpose and live your dreams” is the mantra parents ingrained in their kids. No matter how insurmountable today’s social and environmental challenges may seem, Gen Y believes they can take them on! Gen Y sees it as their birth-right to sort out the mess now so clearly apparent to them in all aspects of society through seeking meaningful experiences and careers that reward them not only financially but in ways that nourish their psyche and soul.

The internet and social networking websites have been pivotal resources for the success and collaboration of many social entrepreneurs. These media allow ideas to be heard by broader audiences, help networks and investors to develop globally, and achieve their goals with little or no start-up capital. Gen Yers understand the power of social networking to achieve what they want and they entrust online communities to influence decision making. The challenge for some of them is recognizing how to balance this techno-sphere with reality, the computer screen with nature, engaging with people and wildness as well as digital interfaces.

Going beyond standard CSR programs, how can commercial organizations and business managers leverage the popularity and appeal of social entrepreneurship when dealing with their own corporate Gen Y population?

 The key here is for organizations to change their sense of purpose and corporate mission and in turn their culture. While this may be daunting in the face of much adversity and volatility within business, it can be immensely liberating and exciting. In fact, these transformational times offer exactly the right conditions for businesses to transform, just take a look at what Nike, Unilever, Puma, Interface, etc. are doing to transform their organizations showing how radical these shifts need to be. Yet, as Gen Yers know, the exciting radical stuff is happening on the fringes of big business with start-ups and niche players who have a sense of purpose 100% aligned to doing good in the world (from which profit can flow).

Clearly, Gen Yers have noble ambitions and are hungry to change the world. Why not use their innate motivational drivers and build a business model aligned to that? After all, it seems that social entrepreneurship and Generation Y is indeed a match made in heaven.’

*This is an abridged version of the original which can be found on the authors’ websites.

Image: Students from Dutch art schools De Eindhovense and SintLucas, each chewed on a piece of gum before adding it to this structure, made entirely of chewing gum, May 2012 (photo: Rex).

Further Information

Martina Mangelsdorf is CEO and Founder of Gaia Insights www.gaia-insights.com, and Giles Hutchins is the Founder of Biomimicry for Creative Innovation www.thenatureofbusiness.org

See also:

Cranfield Event - Managing Generation Y: Why It Matters   

INSEAD’s Social Entrepreneurship Program (Paris and Singapore)



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