Nov 182012

Written By Sonaly Patel (Smith Alum ’12)

I had a recent realization – many emerging social enterprises are coming out with similar products and services designed to create the same impact as their preceding counterparts.  Many of these new “innovations” are competing only to add marginal benefit.  This insight makes me stop and question whether creating social enterprise after social enterprise with similar value propositions is the best way to create social impact.  Perhaps what we need is not an influx of social enterprises engaged in similar work, but new social enterprises with an alternative focus that provides a boost to those that already have stable footing.

The idea already exists in the for-profit business world.  Elastic Inc., a company featured in the Co-Exist article “Changing How We Sell Things, To Make Companies More Successful,” is one of many companies that has found market opportunities through this principle.  The company provides a holistic option for other companies to outsource a portion of their sales function when their growth plateaus.  Essentially, Elastic Inc. thrives off of filling in the gaps in existing companies.

A similar orientation is needed in the social enterprise space where a portion of new social enterprises should focus less on competing along similar offerings and refocus on boosting the success of existing social enterprises.  Riders for Health is one of the few social enterprises that has adopted this perspective.  The company provides logistics and transportation solutions to organizations focused on improving healthcare in Africa.  Instead of simply creating incremental change by entering as another healthcare organization, Riders for Health has a multiplying effect that creates widespread impact by the simple addition of its service.  Riders for Health’s story is just one example of the potential social impact this refocused orientation can create.

Social enterprises solving unaddressed social problems are indispensible, but social enterprises like Riders for Health are an essential support in helping them create widespread social impact and are largely missing in this space.  Think about it and maybe you will discover that your next social enterprise opportunity lies along this new proliferating perspective.


Sonaly Patel is a recent graduate of the R.H. Smith School of Business. Through her involvement with the Center for Social Value Creation, she worked as a strategy consultant for a livelihoods initiative for cacao producing communities in Ecuador’s rainforests and a communications consultant for Liberty’s Promise, a local nonprofit serving immigrant youth.  At Maryland, she was a founding member of Students Ending Slavery, a leader in the AshokaU campus initiative, and a proud resident of Language House Spanish Cluster.  During her undergraduate years, she also interned at the Grassroots Business Fund in DC and studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain. Upon graduation, Sonaly moved to India to live and work in Mumbai through the IDEX Fellowship in Social Enterprise.  She will be in India until May 2013.

  One Response to “A New Line of Social Enterprise”

  1. This is a really interesting point. I’ve always seen the replication and marginal improvements of existing models as the outcome of inadequate scaling opportunities. So many social enterprise models are unproven at scale and this makes it hard for them to secure capital support to do so. This opens up opportunities for copycats in different regions or sectors. I also want to point out that if the end goal is a social mission, does it make a difference whether the model is replicated or scaled?

    What I like about the approach you’ve presented is that scale can be achieved through an innovation in collaboration. I think many people view sector building as an institutional or governance responsibility, but you’ve pointed out that social entrepreneurs can do it too.


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