How to Become a Social Entrepreneur   
May 17th, 2011

By Rupert Scofield

At my son’s graduation from Colorado University recently, Steve Ells, the founder and co-CEO of the fast food chain, Chipotle, delivered the commencement address.   The fast food business would probably be the last place on earth you would expect to find a social entrepreneur, but Ells fits the description.

First, he has the passion.   He described to us how, while in college (at CU, of course) he used to take pleasure in holding dinner parties, and preparing great dishes for his guests.   After he graduated, he worked as a chef in a high end restaurant in San Francisco, and after a few years made the decision to go into business for himself.   His original thought was to start another high end restaurant, but, lacking the capital to launch it, he opened a small Mexican food operation to provide the funding to finance his dream business.

Unwilling to compromise on the quality of the food, even in a small operation, Ells eschewed canned beans in favor of preparing his own, via a time-consuming cooking process with a creative blend of spices.   The customers could appreciate the difference, and soon the restaurant became so popular that Ells dropped his original plans, and began opening other Chipotle restaurants around the country, to the point where he has over 1,000 today.

Ells’ obsession with quality didn’t end there.   Instead of sourcing his pork from corporate farms, he found a cooperative in Iowa that raised hogs in a free range environment, and didn’t pump the animals full of chemicals to speed the fattening process.   He sourced his vegetables from an organic farmer in Virginia.

He became, in effect, a social entrepreneur.   He has a thriving business, which focuses on environmental sustainability, and which reflects his passion for giving his customers quality food at a reasonable price.

Not all paths to becoming a social entrepreneur are as indirect as the one Ells followed, of course.

In my own case, the first step began when, as a Peace Corps volunteer right out of college in 1971, I was assigned to an agricultural services cooperative in the highlands of Guatemala.    Born in New York City, I didn’t know beans about farming, but I did figure out how to help 800 peasant farmers produce more corn and beans on their small, one acre plots, through the provision of $50 loans in the form of fertilizer.   It worked.   Their yields greatly increased, they were able to better feed their families, and all but one repaid their loans in full.    I’m still looking for that one defaulter.

After my Peace Corps experience, I returned to the States and worked at different jobs, but I never found anything that made me feel as useful as I had in that credit officer job in Guatemala.   Years later, I would meet a fellow traveler, John Hatch, who shared my passion for helping peasant farmers escape poverty.  Together, we founded FINCA International, a microfinance network which today provides financial services to over 800,000 micro entrepreneurs in 21 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eurasia and the Middle East.   It took a lot of hard work, and years of learning how to fundraise, but it was such a labor of love that we never viewed it as just a job.   We were on a mission, and our passion and enthusiasm attracted many talented people willing to share their skills and experience – often for far less than they could demand in the for profit sector.

People, especially recently graduated university or graduate school students, often ask me:  “Where do I begin?”    I answer with a question of my own:   “What do you care about?”

Social entrepreneurs feel passionate about something, usually correcting an injustice or helping a group of people who are getting a raw deal and are powerless to do much or anything about it.    But the social entrepreneur shouldn’t just read about his or her constituency, she needs to “walk a mile in their shoes” in order to develop an understanding of their plight.   This is what I call in my book, The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook:  How to Start, Build and Run a Business That Improves the World, the “poverty experience”.   You can get this apprenticeship by joining an organization like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps as a volunteer, or one of the over a million nonprofits that operate in the U.S. and abroad.   You will learn quickly whether or not this path is for you.

After that, you need to hone your skills and acquire the experience you need to make the ultimate move:  to establish your own social enterprise.   You will need to recruit other true believers to your cause.   You will need to raise the capital to finance your social business, to make payroll and to provide the goods and services to the constituency you have identified.   How do you accomplish this?   Brick by brick.   There are no short cuts that I know of it.

But we at FINCA have done it, and, after 25 wonderful years, we have built a sustainable, global social enterprise.   While the challenges never end, we’ve learned to grow and reinvent ourselves in order to master each new level of our organization’s development.

And, above all, we have never lost sight of our mission, and why we do what we do.

Rupert Scofield is President and CEO of FINCA. Present at the birth of the microfinance industry, he made his first micro loans in 1972, a full five years before Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus. Over the past 38 years, he has served in every capacity in the modern non-for-profit world.

For more information on Rupert or on his book, The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook, visit

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