Q:The conference convened 90 researchers from 16 countries. What themes did they focus on?

Leading experts in the field presented and discussed their latest research on a variety of topics related to social entrepreneurship—the pursuit of social or environmental goals by use of innovation, creative thinking, risk-taking and entrepreneurial commerce. Social entrepreneurship, through its innovative and bottom-up approach, has the potential to address society’s most intractable issues such as poverty, hunger, illiteracy, homelessness, or pollution.

Through thought-provoking paper sessions, high-quality discussions, and outstanding keynote speeches by Tyler Wry, Jeffrey Robinson, Julie Battilana, Andrew Charman and Leif Petersen, researchers from various disciplines had the opportunity to advance research and thinking on social entrepreneurship. Among popular themes discussed at this 14th edition of the conference were motivations and intentions to engage in social entrepreneurship, outcomes and measurement, ecosystems, and social entrepreneurship across contexts.

Q:You have been studying social entrepreneurship for more than 10 years. What are your primary research interests?

I examine social entrepreneurship from different levels of analysis—individual, organizational, and societal. My research at one level generates insights that help me further comprehend the phenomenon at another level. I am very interested in understanding the individual-level determinants of social entrepreneurship. While at first I mostly aimed to distinguish and contrast social entrepreneurs with commercial entrepreneurs and explain their differences through traits, socioeconomic background, education, or gender, I have become increasingly interested in the mechanisms that explain one’s engagement in social entrepreneurship.

One of my recent projects with Elisa Alt of Anglia Ruskin University draws on prior research insights, which suggest that empathy—responsivity to the experiences of another—drives social entrepreneurship, and elicit two mechanisms that transform empathy into social entrepreneurship intentions. One is self-efficacy, or the confidence in accomplishing tasks associated with social entrepreneurship. The other is perceived social worth. That is, one’s perception that one’s action to bring about social change and improve the status quo will be valued and appreciated by primary target users, such as microfinance clients, patients at an innovative healthcare clinic, or trainees in an education program. We find that both mechanisms transform empathy into social entrepreneurial intentions in a complementary manner. These findings are particularly important as they can guide practitioners and educators as to the types of perceptions they need to instill or increase in empathic individuals who are considering becoming social entrepreneurs. Not every empathic person is going to become a social entrepreneur, but we now know that those who feel both capable and valued are more likely to do so.

Q: How do individuals think, manage, and sustain the joint pursuit of social and commercial goals in multi-objective organizations?

Social enterprises jointly pursue two goals—a social mission and a financial sustainability objective, which are potentially incompatible. Despite recent research advances, management and entrepreneurship scholars still lack in-depth understanding of the strategic decision-making processes that help integrate multiple goals in such organizations. In a longitudinal inductive qualitative study of a large social enterprise I completed with Julie Battilana of Harvard University and Hélène Bovais of CEDEP France, we find that, to sustain the simultaneous pursuit of multiple organizational objectives, the social enterprise rests on a peculiar decision-making process that involves consensual decision-making and negotiation among actors who embody distinct “championing” roles. As they make vital strategic decisions, some key decision-makers act as champions of social goals, while others act as champions of commercial goals. These roles shape their priorities and their behaviors, and act as a buffer to prevent conflicts from becoming personal. This research advances a finer understanding of the processes that drive the joint pursuit of multiple organizational objectives.

Q: What was your biggest takeaway from the conference?

An aspect that was more prevalent than ever at this year’s conference is the importance to study extra-organizational outcomes. Indeed, as Tyler Wry alluded during his opening keynote emphasizing some of his latest research on global microfinance, we as management and entrepreneurship scholars need to pay more attention to two elements that surround and directly relate to social enterprises. The first is the institutional support, where funders and investors provide capital to social enterprises; the second is the impact of those social enterprises.

Achieving social impact and catalyzing social change have become important drivers for actors across a wide spectrum—from nonprofits, social innovators, and socially-minded startups to major corporations and every level of government. Across all these domains, the most basic question is, “How can we create some lasting good, some positive societal change?” However, research that connects social entrepreneurship to its outcomes is still at infancy. To fill this gap, my work with Tom Lumpkin from the University of Oklahoma proposes a framework that addresses how social entrepreneurship initiatives translate into societal-level outcomes and suggests that impact is created through the interaction of multiple stakeholders with diverse interests, who join forces to create what we call “civic wealth creation.” This framework bears important implications as it moves the attention beyond the focal organization to investigate organizing for social impact.