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Discovering 700-year-old roots of social enterprise

Social Enterprise as a distinct commercial model, was developed in the 70s by businessman Bill Drayton. It is a relatively new business framework that has rapidly grown since its inception, however, the ethos behind this movement has been around for centuries. Many give credit to Drayton for being the inventor of social enterprise, however, we see the collaborative nature and sustainable mission of social enterprises in businesses around the world that date back hundreds of years. Oftentimes, in the west especially, academic ideas are only given merit after being validated by a rich man with a business degree. This isn’t negating all of Drayton’s work, but simply encouraging people to look further at the roots of social enterprises. At present, the exact definition of ‘social enterprise’ remains ambiguous but, by looking to the past, we can hope to find the perspective needed to better comprehend its meaning.

Mansa Musa in the Catalan Atlas, 1375 - Abraham Cresques, Gallica Digital Library

Mansa Musa, ruler of Mali in the 1300s, has been cited by some as the oldest example of a social entrepreneur we have – he amassed his wealth through trading and reinvested parts of his profit to fund his community (building schools, libraries, etc.). By doing this, his kingdom thrived economically and socially throughout his entire reign. Although social enterprises today operate under a multitude of structures, the underlying principle can be observed in Musa’s governance: taking societal impact into account in business pursuits leads to socioeconomic development.

Ideas of social justice appear in ‘De Subventione Pauperum’ (On Relief of the Poor) - an essay published in 1526 by Spanish scholar, Juan Luis Vives, which states that civil authorities must be responsible for providing for the poor and maintaining social order. This marks a shift in ideals as social inequality becomes more recognised and strategies to minimise it begin to emerge.

SEUK notes the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers (formed in 1844) as the first social enterprise that resembles the modern-day structure. The RSEP was one of the first consumer co-operatives in the UK – formed in response to the endemic mistreatment of workers at the time. The RSEP established the Rochdale Principles (a set of objectives and ideals for the operation of co-operatives) which are still used as a benchmark reference for current co-operatives. This obviously had a major influence in the progression of social innovation and the foundations of modern-day social enterprise.

Bill Drayton, the businessman that coined the phrase ‘social enterprise’ created a paradigm shift with the establishment of Ashoka in 1972 (a company that promotes a change-making narrative and sponsors budding social entrepreneurs) and the Social Enterprise Movement which distinguished social enterprise in a class of its own. It’s important to note that Drayton himself was inspired by Vinoba Bhave, a social reformer who created waves in social innovation with his Bhoodan Movement or Land Gift Movement (Bhave appealed to wealthy landowners to share a portion of their land to people in a disadvantaged caste and was able to gift 4 million acres of land in the span of 20 years). Oftentimes, Drayton is seen as the sole creator of social enterprise but that viewpoint only diminishes the years of groundwork that enabled this movement to occur. It also pushes a whitewashed narrative – that social enterprises can only be recognised once they are part of Western economy. As we have seen, social enterprise has roots that stretch around the globe and across history.

Left: Vinoba Bhave on 1983 Indian stamp. Right: Bill Drayton,

Since then, social entrepreneurship has grown immensely on a global scale, with new socially focused business methods on the rise as well as social economy programmes being implemented in academic spaces. There is no set starting point for social enterprise, as there is no set definition. It is an ever-evolving phenomenon revolving around an ever-changing society. Looking at its evolution only confirms the transient nature of social enterprise, adapting to best suit the societal needs surrounding it. This lack of clarity can be overwhelming in its complexities but also liberating, as it gives those at the frontier of the movement free range to shape the future of social enterprise and choose what defines it.

Author: Elle Villa - Irish Transition Year student from Sutton Park and intern at Supply Change


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