The Tried And Tested Traits Of Social Entrepreneurs

Patience is a virtue, goes the saying. But when it comes to social entrepreneurs, impatience – impatience for change – is a common trait among them.

There are many other traits that define successful social entrepreneurs, of course. They share the ability to recognise an opportunity to improve what is, and mostly have the skill to implement their vision. Not least, they tirelessly commit to working for it. Money, you’ll find, is never the driver, but a passion to see their own idea making a real impact on the world.

Each social entrepreneur has their own leadership style, and faced different challenges depending on the community, and sector, in which they operate. The most successful social innovators tend to have a skill they’ve already honed.

“These individuals have figured out how to improve an existing system or status quo, so they are usually experts in their fields already,” says Wits Business School head Professor Steve Bluen.

That said, an opportunity to change the world invariably presents tough challenges, never more so than in an innovative new venture.

In the 2014 social entrepreneurship survey commissioned by Chivas Regal, titled Redefining Success in a Changing World, (Learn More), 70 South African social entrepreneurs were researched, and a strong majority of them were start-ups, founded mostly by men (59%). Most of their businesses focused on local needs in the fields of education, environment and technology.

Predictably, the failings of government in delivering required services or harnessing talent are where South African social entrepreneurs tend to proliferate.

One of the Chivas case studies was scientist Ravi Naidoo, who led the formation of Interactive Africa, a group of commercial activists who founded Design Indaba. Tapping the pioneering post-apartheid spirit of regeneration, this group sought to use creativity and design as a catalyst for the development of a “new” South Africa. Today, Interactive Africa is the biggest design platform in the southern hemisphere.

Another case study was Joshua Cox, founder of Fix Forward (Learn More), which connects homeowners wanting to do renovations with the best, hand-picked artisans from the townships. Cox started this service in 2007 by simply helping his struggling artisan friend, Simon, by providing him with business cards and a written reference. Credibility and a few marketing resources were all that Simon needed to secure a continual flow of work.

Helping out is one thing, but turning a good idea into a profitable venture is quite another. And this is where resilience comes in, as according to the 70 people interviewed by Chivas, access to finance or funding was the biggest obstacle. A total of 24% said they had no support whatsoever from either government or financial institutions, and many had to dig into their own pockets to get started. Commitment and courage were their fuel.

On this note, this is the interesting observation of one of our most extraordinary social entrepreneurs, chartered accountant and philanthropist Donald Gordon, who founded the insurance company Liberty Life. “The person with big dreams is more powerful than the one with all the facts. And don’t worry about the money. Limited funds are a blessing, not a curse. Nothing encourages creative thinking in quite the same way.”

Perhaps the most critical tool in the social entrepreneur’s armoury, however, is the ability to “shut up and listen”, as American-based sustainable development expert Ernesto Sirolli puts it. Sirolli spent 1971 to 1977 in Africa working for an Italian NGO, and recalls that the experience was a comedy of errors because of a failure to tap into what the community really wanted.

“The first principle of aid is respect. What you do is you shut up. You never arrive in a community with any ideas, and you sit with the local people, become friends,” he says.

– By The Philanthropic Collection –


The Philanthropic Collection™ is a boutique social enterprise,
where we tailor haute-couture brands for philanthropy.


Our appliqué is made up of global leaders, influencers and forecasters,
all creating conscious capital for humanity.