The 10 Most Successful Social Entrepreneurs

In the past, many entrepreneurs chose to accumulate wealth in the private sector and become philanthropists later in life. However, now entrepreneurs can work to improve social issues through their businesses. Globally, a new business model has emerged that meshes businesses with governmental and social organizations. Nonprofits and for-profit businesses can team up to form a hybrid business model, led by a new generation of social entrepreneurs. These leaders successfully tackle social issues while generating profit for shareholders.

Widespread use of ethical practices such as impact investing, conscious consumerism, and corporate social responsibility programs facilitated the success of the following 10 social entrepreneurs.

Key Takeaways

  • Social entrepreneurs look to found new businesses that contribute positively to the greater good and give back to society.
  • While many socially-conscious companies are for-profit, they do focus on solving social problems, and often contribute to their communities or help those in need.
  • Social entrepreneurship is growing, with capital provided by investors looking at socially responsible investing (SRI) and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria.


Social Entrepreneur Definition

1. Bill Drayton

Bill Drayton is recognized as one of the pioneering social entrepreneurs of our time. Drayton founded Ashoka: Innovators for the Public in 1980, which takes a multifaceted approach to finding and supporting social entrepreneurs globally. Drayton also serves as chair of the board for Get America Working! and Youth Venture.

2. Rachel Brathen

"Yoga Girl" is the name of Rachel Brathen’s New York Times best-selling book and the handle for her Instagram account, which reaches 2 million followers. In addition to showing her audience fresh yoga poses and tips, Rachel hopes to connect teachers with people in the online community who need healing. “What if social media could become a social mission?” asks Brathen. Her online channel was an “online studio” that offered health, yoga, and meditation services.

3. Shiza Shahid

As co-founder and global ambassador of the Malala Fund, Shiza Shahid, manages business operations for Malala Yousafzai, the teenager who became the youngest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. Like Malala, Shahid was born in Pakistan. She initially reached out to Malala in 2009 and worked to organize a camp for her and other Pakistani girls. In 2012, Shiza flew to Malala's bedside after she was targeted and shot by the Taliban for promoting education for girls. Inspired by Malala's desire to continue campaigning for gender equality and education, Shahid decided to help Malala strategize her campaign. Shahid created the Malala Fund, which helps empower women and girls by advocating and spreading access to education.

4. Blake Mycoskie

After a trip to Argentina in 2006, Mycoskie became the chief shoe giver and founder of TOMS Shoes, using some of his own money to launch the company. TOMS pledged to donate one pair of shoes for every one sold, and now expands the “One-For-One” campaign to support water, sight, birth, and anti-bullying initiatives. Through the TOMS brand, Mycoskie has raised awareness about issues like global poverty and health. As of 2022, the organization had provided people in developing countries with 75 million pairs of shoes and more than 450,000 weeks of safe water. Moreover, the TOMS Eyewear program has helped to restore sight in more than 780,000 individuals by giving recipients prescriptive glasses or surgery.

5. Scott Harrison

Scott Harrison left a life of luxury in New York City and headed for the shores of West Africa to volunteer with a hospital ship charity named Mercy Ships. The trip was a watershed moment, and in 2006 Harrison founded charity: water, a nonprofit that provides safe and potable drinking water in 29 countries around the world. As of 2020, the organization had fulfilled 91,414 projects in developing countries. In 2020 alone, charity: water raised $55.4 million.

6. Muhammad Yunus

Professor Muhammad Yunus is renowned for the popularization of microfinance and microcredit, which serve as the cornerstones of the Grameen Bank, founded in 1983. In 2006, Yunus was awarded the Nobel Prize for creating the Grameen Bank, which is based on the principles of trust and solidarity to empower villagers with the funding to pull themselves out of poverty. According to the Grameen Bank, as of May 2022, 90% of its about 9 million borrowers are women, who pay their loans back at a rate of 97%—a recovery rate higher than any traditional banking system. This renowned professor has received international awards like the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009, the Congressional Gold Medal in 2010, and the Olympic Laurel in 2021.

7. Jeffrey Hollender

Jeffrey Hollender is well known as the former chief executive officer (CEO) and co-founder of Seventh Generation, a popular business for natural products. He is now a leading consultant, speaker, and activist for corporate social responsibility. He has written seven books including “How to Make the World a Better Place.” Hollender is co-founder and CEO of Hollender Sustainable Brands, which sells sustainable products for sexual and personal health—such as condoms, tampons, lubricants, pads, and the like. Hollender is an adjunct professor at New York University and co-founder and board chair of the American Sustainable Business Council; and a board member of various other organizations, including Greenpeace USA, Health Care Without Harm, and workers' rights organization Verité.

8. Xavier Helgesen, Christopher “Kreece” Fuchs, and Jeff Kurtzman

These three co-founders of Better World Books—a B-Corp online bookstore that funds global literacy—all deserve recognition as successful social entrepreneurs. The founders met at Notre Dame University, where they tutored the football team and started collecting unwanted books to sell on the internet. Helgesen is CEO and co-founder of ZOLA Electric, formerly Off Grid Electric, which provides renewable energy to homes in the “off-grid world.” Kurtzman previously held the CEO position at Aid Through Trade, a company that distributes handmade accessories from Nepal around the U.S., where he was responsible for a 125% growth in sales. He also co-founded the nonprofit Operation Incubation, which delivers low-cost, low-maintenance incubators to the developing world.

9. Marc Koska

Marc Koska re-designed medical tools, introducing a non-reusable, inexpensive syringe to be used in under-funded clinics. This innovation safeguards against the transmission of blood-borne diseases. Koska founded the SafePoint Trust in 2006, which delivered 4 billion safe injections in 40 countries via his "auto-disable" syringes. The Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2015 cited Koska for his pioneering solution to a world health issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced a global policy on safe injections in February of 2015.

10. Sanjit “Bunker” Roy

Sanjit “Bunker” Roy had a privileged upbringing in India, in contrast to many Indians who live off of less than $1 per day. When Roy visited some of his country's rural villages, he had a life-altering experience and decided to find a way to improve the social-economic inequities in his country. He founded Barefoot College in 1972, a solar-powered college for the poor. Roy describes Barefoot College as “the only college where the teacher is the learner and the learner is the teacher."

What Is Social Entrepreneurship?

Social entrepreneurship is when a startup company is founded with a mission to promote social good. These are often for-profit ventures that leverage technology and ingenuity to solve problems of societal importance such as hunger, disease, and inequality as well as environmental issues.

What Is Socially-Responsible Investing (SRI)?

Socially-responsible investing, or SRI, is when investors specifically seek out companies to invest in which will make a positive social impact. Often these investors seek companies with strong ESG (environmental, social, governance) commitments.

Who Was the First Social Entrepreneur?

While there have been many businessmen focused on social issues throughout history, the first person to coin the term "social entrepreneur" was Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka, in 1980. Today he is known by some as the "father of social entrepreneurship."

The "Triple Bottom Line"

These 10 inspiring social entrepreneurs use business to both generate profit and solve some of the world’s most daunting social problems. Innovation takes many forms, and it's wonderful when insightful ideas can work to address global social issues. Social entrepreneurs take the road less traveled to build flourishing hybrid businesses with triple-bottom lines.

Article Sources
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  1. Ashoka. "Our Mission."

  2. Ashoka. "William Drayton."

  3. Yoga Girl. "Rachel Brathen."

  4. Nobel Prize. "Malala Yousafzai."

  5. Claudia Chan. “Shiza Shaid.”

  6. CAA Speakers. "Shiza Shahid."

  7. TOMS. “What We Give.”

  8. TOMS. “Our Story.”

  9. TOMS. “Giving Shoes.”

  10. TOMS. “Offering Water.”

  11. TOMS. “Offering Vision Restoration.”

  12. Mindy Bond. “Scott Harrison, Photojournalist.”

  13. charity: water. “Meet the Founder.”

  14. charity: water. “Our Work.”

  15. charity: water. “Charity: Water Annual Report, 2020,” Page 4.

  16. The Nobel Foundation. “Muhammad Yunus Biographical.”

  17. Grameen Foundation. "Muhammad Yunus."

  18. Grameen Bank. “Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Poverty Through Microcredit.”

  19. United States Mint. "Professor Muhammad Yunus Receives Congressional Gold Medal."

  20. International Olympic Committee. “Nobel Peace Prize Awardee Professor Muhammad Yunus to Receive Olympic Laurel.”

  21. Jeffrey Hollender Partners. “Today.”

  22. Better World Books. "History."

  23. ZOLA. “How It Started.”

  24. Mavin Ventures. “Jeff Kurtzman - Co-Founder & Managing Partner.”

  25. Safepoint Trust. “Who We Are.”

  26. Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. "Social Entrepreneurs of the Year 2015."

  27. Barefoot College. “Three-Year Strategic Focus (2015-2018),” Page 5.

  28. Barefoot College. "Barefoot College Founder Sanjit 'Bunker' Roy Received Princeton Doctor of Law Degrees Honoris Causa."

  29. Forbes. "Father Of Social Entrepreneurship Says ‘Society Is At A Profound Turning Point’."