December 17, 2014

Social entrepreneurship – a new tool in the public health toolkit?

Associate Vice Provost for Entrepreneurship, Cecil and Gwendolyn Cupp Applied Professorship in Entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas ( U A ), Fayetteville, Carol Reeves, P h D

Carol Reeves, Ph.D.

Can business principles be applied to solving public health problems? That is the question that two leaders in the field of social entrepreneurship came to talk about last week at the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health. An open discussion around that question was led by Carol Reeves, Ph.D., and Trish Flanagan, MPS, MBA, one of Reeves’ former students and now working in Little Rock. The talk was organized by Jay Gandy, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, for the College’s Public Health Seminar.

Dr. Reeves is the Associate Vice-Provost for Entrepreneurship and holds the Cecil & Gwendolyn Cupp Applied Professorship in Entrepreneurship at the University of Arkansas (UA), Fayetteville. Ms. Flanagan is the co-founder of Social Entrepreneurship Projects for Noble Impact, an initiative of the Clinton School of Public Service.

Ms. Flanagan said that her first exposure to the business world was when she decided to pursue a joint master’s degree in public service and business administration offered by UA and the Clinton School, after several years abroad as a teacher in developing countries. In the process she had some of her assumptions challenged and her curiosity piqued.

She wanted to understand how highly successful corporate enterprises are able, “on a gigantic scale, to meet a need and create a demand for something new.” She concluded that a business mindset can be melded with public service to achieve a social goal.

“I come from the sector that says ‘oh profit, oh greed’ and while some of that is well-founded,” Ms. Flanagan said, she learned that money is not what entirely makes business people tick.

“Most entrepreneurs I know are not motivated by money,” Dr. Reeves agreed, contrasting them to venture capitalists and investors.

So, just what is it that defines this special type of businessperson? According to Reeve and Flanagan, entrepreneurs see a need and believe that they have a solution. They tend to be innovative risk-takers that love what they do.

That special ilk, social entrepreneurs “see an opportunity to solve major social problems” and set out to do so, utilizing a business model. Those that succeed achieve their social aim and make a profit that often is turned back into the company to scale-up the enterprise.

So isn’t “solving social problems” what a public health agency or non-profit seeks to do? And isn’t “sustainability” just another word for “profit”? And don’t they both measure success by value created or vision achieved? What’s the difference, many in the room wanted to know.

To help explain what distinguishes a non-profit from a social entrepreneur, Dr. Reeves offered that “the big difference is attitudinal.”

Social entrepreneurs move faster and are comfortable without having everything and everyone in place before moving forward, sometimes taking risks to scale up promising strategies or models. As the leader at the top, they are able to make quick decisions, and take action without always having to seek consensus among stakeholders or satisfy a bureaucracy.

“This greatly reduces death by committee,” Dr. Reeves said.

And, they are not vulnerable to public agency budget cuts because their revenue comes from sale of goods or services.

While it is not all about the money, social entrepreneurs are focused on building a business and getting a return on investment while achieving positive social change.

So, could this model be widely applied to social and public health problems? “Not everything has a market solution,” Dr. Reeves said, offering child trafficking, domestic violence, and fundamental government services as a few that don’t.

The hour ended with the world’s problems still not solved, but perhaps the College’s guest lecturers left their listeners with some new thoughts about entrepreneurship and what it has to offer public health.

“It is not all or nothing with ‘for-profit’ killing the world and ‘non-profit’ saving the world. It is important to break out of that model,” Ms. Flanagan said. “Thinking outside of the box is important when we are thinking about solving social problems. It is important to start with the idea and not wait for all the resources.”