Calling bullshit on Forbes’ List of Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs

Pic: courtesy

Normally I don’t pay much attention to Top [X] rankings. Maybe today was a slow news day. Maybe I just returned from Villgro’s Unconvention and am still chewing the cud so am hyper-sensitive on who is(isn’t) a social entrepreneur, what is(isn’t) a social enterprise. Scott Anderson’s article on NextBillion alerted me to this freshly released Forbes List of Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs. And boy! was I in for a shock?

  1. Five impact investing firms (Ignia, Root Capital, Enterprise Community Partners, Gray Ghost Ventures, and Acumen Fund) in the list. I have nothing against impact investing firms – heck! I believe there need to be more of them. But impact investors are NOT social entrepreneurs. In the preface to the Top 30 list, Forbes’ Helen Coster writes: We’re defining ‘social entrepreneur’ as a person who uses business to solve social issues. That’s the most laissez-faire definition I’ve encountered in my 8 months researching and writing about this space. One begins to appreciate why the folks at Stanford Social Innovation Review made the case for a rigorous definition (see our take on defining social entrepreurship for context). I’m willing to let Coster’s definition stand for the sake of this argument but, seriously, nobody confuses a social entrepreneur with an impact investor. That’s like saying… err… a venture capitalist is an entrepreneur. I can only speculate that since the Forbes cover feature was on Jacqueline Novogratz, perhaps the writer felt that the overall narrative would flow better if Novogratz were also in the Top 30 List.
  2. Err.. could the methodology be a bit more detailed please? Listing the panel of five experts is a necessary but not sufficient condition to understand what kind of criteria were used to come up with the list. Phrases like “leading innovators across health, education, finance and other sectors” and “I selected several people as well” don’t evoke much confidence. The last phrase makes for a very interesting discretionary cop-out, especially when we don’t know the social enterprise credentials of the writer. Am I splitting hairs? Heck yeah. This is a Forbes list, not the Timbaktu Journal of Do Gooders!
  3. Non-profits are not social enterprises: Thirteen of the individuals in the Top 30 list are running non-profit organizations, they are for-profit enterprises with a social purpose (a definition implied even by Coster’s laissez-faire definition – “a person that uses business to solve social issues”.) Some of them claim to have a self-sufficient business model and I don’t deny that. But, by that token, any non-profit that does annual fundraising (and meets its target) can make this claim, right?
  4. US-centric list or global? The implication is that it’s a global list but fifteen of the organizations have their operations entirely in US. Only three of the organizations are headquartered outside US!
  5. Rookie vs. established entrepreneurs: The founders of D.light (a 3 year old off-grid solar startup) are on this list but Selco’s Harish Hande (an off-grid solar enterprise with an outstanding 16 year track record) is not. Unreasonable Institute, 2-year old accelerator with an interesting mentoring program, is on the list. 5-year old charity:water is on the list, so is 20-year old TeachForAmerica and 10-year old Acumen Fund so it’s hard to draw any conclusions on this front.
  6. Aided recall anyone? I’ve been tracking, researching, and writing about the social enterprise space full-time for eight months now. Granted, it’s only eight months and the focus of my blog is India but my reading has been global. From this list of 30, I’ve previously heard of only nine (specifically these nine – KIPP, Unreasonable Institute, D.light, Kaboom, charity:water, TeachForAmerica, Acumen, Gray Ghost, and Room to Read). Who knows what the right aided recall number is for a social enterprise watcher like me? Perhaps a low number suggests the list is chock-full of undiscovered gems? More likely, my aided recall is low because of point #4 – that the list is largely a US-centric list masquerading as a global list.
I started this post late morning, it’s now close to my bedtime and I’m about to click on the Publish button. Fresh from my perusal of Om’s ten simple rules of blogging (rule #7), I did proof-read the article and reflected again on why it’s important for me to write this post. I still stand by the six points (a mixture of critique and befuddlement). Hope Helen Coster will engage in a conversation.
  • I have nothing against Novogratz, Acumen Fund, or any of the impact investors in the Top 30 List – I love what they do and wish their funds could be larger so they could make more investments.
  • I have nothing against any of the non-profit and social enterprise organizations in the Top 30 List. Keep up the wonderful work!

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  • It seems you have not understood American mentality. NBA is often quoted as basketball world championships in the US. Need I say more

  • Karl

    As one UK colleague notes, it’s the social entrepreneur world series…

  • Deepa Chaudhary

    so totally agree with you on this, thanks for putting it down

  • I agree, and had a similar reaction to the list. The lack of social enterprises working hands-on is surprising, and why in the world does the list not have even one Indian social entrepreneur, or even a person of Indian origin. Are there no Indians working in this space, or doing any good work? Magsaysay awardees don’t make it to the list, while some rather recent attempts, a few yet to achieve veritable scale, do. Forbes is anyway not nearly an authority on the Social Enterprise sector in particular, and the development space in general, as is seen in their CSR blog which keeps spewing jargon and comes with a new term every week without actually going out there and covering the industry. [My first reaction to the list, which attracted some retribution:!/ShreyGoyal/status/143718793124909056%5D

  • kattiekhiba

    Vishi, you were clearly trying to avoid offending any of the organizations so I will. It is questionable just how “innovative” some of these organizations are. Some are arguably much more innovative in their PR efforts than their actual work. Charity:water? Sure, it’s a cool organization but bringing wells and other water technologies to places that need them is not new or innovative. It’s been going on for decades. (Peace Corps volunteers were helping villages build wells back in the ’60s). College Summit? There are literally dozens of organizations doing the same thing (College Track, College Bound, etc.). Is the definition of “innovative” the actual work being done or the methods used to raise money, get attention, etc? 

    This list should have been called “30 Most SAVVY Social Entrepreneurs”, not “leading”.

    • Right – I was definitely trying to avoid offending the orgs in the list. I’m also inclined to agree that many in the list didn’t sound terribly innovative. But I won’t second-guess their impact in their respective areas.

  • Deepa Chaudhary

    Hey, back again as I love the fact that you highlighted this, I was planning to do so on my own blog the moment I saw the Forbes list but than thought of not doing it, simply b’coz Forbes at least made an inaugural attempt to highlight the field. But as a dominant media voice they should have acted more responsibly. Love you brought out these points and another one to add, 

    Daniel Epstein of @Unreasonable Institute runs an incubator program, he accelerates social entrepreneurs NOT a social entrepreneur. 

    • Thanks again, Deepa! You are absolutely right about Unreasonable Institute also. btw, are you a social enterprise observer or participant?

      • Deepa Chaudhary

        I was a participant, now an observer, i blog at

  • Watching American Style Capitalism become a Brand That Won’t Sell has been one of the most hugely satisfying events of my entire life. 

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  • skampy

    Good article.  Funy list!  They forgot to list some of the ‘christian microfinance’ groups.  Take creation fund which got Opt. Int to sell assets to the Fund, when Opt Int’s CEO had a stake in the new fund.  the CEO quits and becomes CFO of the fund then turns around and sues Opt. Int for a fraudulent sale.  who really pays? — it all traces back to the US taxpayer donations.

    • Sorry for my late response – thanks for your comment. Did not know about the Creation Fund story — is there an article you can link to?

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  • JK

    Agree with Vishy… 
    For a nice discussion on the definition and fundamental concept of social entrepreneurship, check out: