The notion of social entrepreneurship continues to gain traction, but it is vital to make it much better known. We have moved from ignorance about this new entrepreneurial field to polite interest, and on to a real desire to cooperate on the part of political leaders and large companies.

This year, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship has recognised thirty-seven individuals for their outstanding work in this field. These are people who have decided to go it alone. When someone creates a social enterprise, they do not have a management team that flanks them or spurs them on. They are impassioned individuals, determined to find solutions to the problems they come across.

Typically, the aim of a social enterprise is to respond first to a problem that afflicts society and then to grow a viable organization. It is hard to predict what will succeed and what will fail. Our foundation assesses social enterprises on three main criteria: their social innovation, their direct impact, and their financial soundness. We seek out those who have the capacity to change the game in their area in a sustainable way.

Since its inception, the Schwab Foundation has backed about 300 such entities. We give them access to our network; they are invited to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos and to Forum regional meetings; they take part in the Forum’s multiple activities, working groups and research projects, and much more.

The United Kingdom is at the vanguard of the social entrepreneurship movement, while Switzerland, France and Germany lag behind. In Europe, most of us live in welfare states, and it is only when this safety net weakens or fails that social entrepreneurship emerges as a force to be reckoned with. As a result, the organizations we have honoured in Switzerland over the last five years devote themselves mainly to creating jobs, helping senior citizens, supporting childcare or reintegrating troubled adolescents back into society.

In developing countries, the needs are much more acute, so we see many social entrepreneurs tackling challenges such as access to clean water, educating girls and young women, or getting medicines to remote areas.

At present, the most promising social enterprises seek to address problems related to demographics (ageing populations, social inclusion and job creation). We also see innovation in the fields of IT, education and e-learning, as well as in mobile communication technology. Fishermen and farmers now have direct access to markets, thanks to their mobile phones, while telemedicine presents the possibility of remote diagnostics.

Governments can take steps to encourage social entrepreneurship. They cannot do everything, but they must enable society’s most enterprising individuals to be as innovative as possible. They can do this with legislation and tax alleviations, which make it easier for entrepreneurs to act.

Global institutions must also play their part. The European Commission has raised the profile of social entrepreneurship by adopting a directive in this area, as have the G8 and OECD. In all these institutions, “impact investing” has become a very important tool in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

A large number of universities around the world offer studies in social entrepreneurship, with Harvard and Stanford leading, in addition INSEAD and many other European Universities. We cooperate with several business schools so that our awardees are able to attend their courses to improve their management skills and knowhow.

The world has woken up to the fact that we need pragmatic new ideas if we want to resolve the big problems in our society. As social inclusion becomes a major concern across the globe, the contribution from social entrepreneurs will have an increasingly resounding impact.

Everyone admires California’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who have used their innovation to generate extraordinary wealth within a short timeframe. I hope that the young generation will also admire social entrepreneurs and realize that they too are role models.

Author: Hilde Schwab is Chairperson and Co-Founder, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship,

This article is based on a conversation with Bilan magazine.

Image: Some of the Social Entrepreneurs of 2014.