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In recent months, there have been increasing requests for Startup Weekend to focus more on social entrepreneurship. Presently, in addition to the general Startup Weekend events, we have experimented with events focused on specific “verticals.” This includes: Education, Gaming, University, Green, Mobile, 3D printing, Government, and Social. Future vertical tests will include: Health, Food, Developing Worlds, Art/Design, Media/Entertainment, and Journalism. Each vertical focus is subsequently evaluated for its potential to scale globally.

We believe the ideas and format of Startup Weekend lend themselves to application across a wide range of sectors, and that Startup Weekend has the potential to be transformative in many areas of the global economy. Our experience with the Social Entrepreneurship vertical, however, has convinced us that it is not a viable vertical for Startup Weekend.

From a logistical perspective, we have found that focusing on “social” entrepreneurship is fraught with difficulty. Startup Weekend has run a dozen “social”-themed events and we have found the outcomes to be of poor quality compared to the normal Startup Weekend events. When we focus on a specific vertical, we require that at least 25 percent of the attendees be domain experts. This is not possible with “social,” unless you segregate attendees by motivations or values, which would obviously create unwanted problems. There is no clearly distinct or definable “social” vertical—a Startup Weekend could theoretically focus on nonprofit organizations, but that introduces similar difficulties of domain. In any case, the specific choice of business model or type of organization should be subsumed within a larger vertical or determined by the teams’ goals, not elevated to a special category.

The question of what “social” means introduces yet further difficulties—there appears to be no generally agreed upon definition of what is “social” entrepreneurship and what is non-social entrepreneurship. Most of the existing work that seeks clarity of definition discusses “mission-related impact” or “transformational benefits” that accrue to society at large or some segment of society. These involve matters of personal values and motivations rather than objective criteria. And, it is of course true that entrepreneurship in the for-profit world creates significant benefits beyond the financial remuneration that accrues to the founders and employees. Economist William Nordhaus has shown that innovators and entrepreneurs reap less than 5 percent of the value created by their effort—the remaining 95-plus percent is captured as “consumer surplus,”—that is, by everyone else in society.[1]

Pursuing a specific “social” vertical at Startup Weekend would implicitly cast the other verticals and the more general events in a position of inferiority. Few Startup Weekend participants would claim that they are motivated by non-social or anti-social goals. Many, in fact, would ascribe their motivations to the desire to solve problems or build something that is useful to other people. For example, decades of studies have shown that software developers, a large Startup Weekend constituency, are spurred by a wide array of motivations, many of which have little to do with financial gain.

We obviously sympathize with many of the ideas that appear to unify the often-disparate discussions of social entrepreneurship. Commonly, these include improved environmental quality, more equitable economic results, and better access to things like education and health care. But, we tend to take the view that all entrepreneurs are social entrepreneurs: the creation of new organizations to solve problems (a widely-accepted definition of entrepreneurship) conveys nothing about an essential link between form and function, and whether something is labeled “social” or not. Solving social problems will sometimes involve nonprofit organizations, and in other instances it will require for-profit businesses. Individual financial gain can also generate—though not in every case—large welfare gains that extend well beyond the individual.

Whether defined by the outcome or by an individual’s motivation, there is not sufficient basis to separate social entrepreneurship as a distinct Startup Weekend vertical. The proper focus at Startup Weekend is on execution and team formation, irrespective of what values or motivations we might ascribe to the business or venture. We are all after a better society, a better economy, with more shared prosperity. There are many different ways to get there: for-profit, nonprofit, technological, whatever. Much of the work that seeks to distinguish “social” entrepreneurship is premised on a subjective value judgment about what is “good” and what does or does not constitute a virtuous pursuit. Entrepreneurs of all kinds are out taking risks and trying to solve problems big and small. To draw lines of virtue would introduce, in most cases, a distinction without a difference, something we are unprepared to do with Startup Weekend. Giving something an irrelevant label introduces needless bias and tension, which is destructive to the broader entrepreneurship movement. Let’s focus on the doing component of it, not deciding if something is virtuous or not. The results will speak for themselves.

One constructive way in which to think about this, and to talk about it at Startup Weekend events, is to position the “social” element as a horizontal dimension of Startup Weekend, rather than a vertical. Clearly, everyone who attends Startup Weekend is seeking to make a broad social impact—they may have financial or career goals in mind, or simply want to meet some new people, but they also have big social ambitions for their idea and team. In that sense, the “social” element cuts across all Startup Weekend attendees, ideas, and teams. If different Startup Weekend Organizers and communities would like to elevate the social dimension of entrepreneurship, they might experiment with adding a prize for the most “socially responsible” or sustainable idea, or making this a judging criterion. The important point remains not to draw lines of value distinction among communities and attendees, but the social dimensions of entrepreneurship can still inform Startup Weekend and play a role in building great teams.

[1] William Nordhaus, “Schumpeterian Profits in the American Economy,” http://www.nber.org/papers/w10433.pdf.

Mitchell Cuevas
(@mcuevasm) I am the Sr. Marketing Director here at Techstars, am passionate about helping entrepreneurs, and am obsessed with finding, playing with, and implementing all the best new marketing (and other) technology I can get my hands on.