In the past, alchemists attempted to do the impossible: turn lead into gold. Alchemists believed that if chemical properties could be manipulated or transmuted, lead could, indeed, be transformed into gold. However, the key to this seemingly magical process was the proverbial philosopher’s stone. Such a stone was seen empowering alchemists to properly perform the transmutation process. The catch: the philosopher’s stone was believed to be impossible to find.
This quest of creating value out of mundane and neglected elements has fascinated humanity since ancient times. The alchemy story, I believe, reflects society’s quest for continuous value-creation and progress. When taken as a metaphor, this story seems to represent the phenomenon of social entrepreneurship.
The general process of social entrepreneurship involves change-makers designing social business models and innovative organizations to empower marginalized stakeholders. Loosely applying the story of alchemy as an analogy, alchemists (social entrepreneurs) seek to transform lead to gold (empower the marginalized by applying business ideas, while pursuing financial value) through the elusive philosopher’s stone (designing social business models).
However, parallel to the alchemy story, it is very difficult to design social business models that effectively reconcile financial and social objectives. As alchemists try to reconcile the properties of lead and gold through the philosopher’s stone, social entrepreneurs seek to provide social value for the marginalized, address the needs and wants of customers, and aim to capture financial value to sustain operations. A grand ambition, indeed!
Nevertheless, we can be optimistic that the social entrepreneurship process is not as quixotic as the alchemy story.
In our social enterprise case study with research findings in the Philippines, we have found admirable social enterprises that continuously refine their social business models – leveraging on the creativity and skill-sets of communities to develop quality products and services that customers are willing to pay for.
Whereas traditional businesses neglect micro-entrepreneurs, hard-to-reach farmers, and rural communities, social entrepreneurs deliberately seek to partner with these neglected stakeholders. Through business acumen and the ability to leverage on an ecosystem of support, social enterprises strive to develop and refine social business models. Creating value that benefits the marginalized, the enterprise, and customers is difficult, but unlike the alchemy story, social entrepreneurs prove that it is possible to figuratively transform lead into gold.
The important lesson from the alchemy story, however, is the need for alchemists and social entrepreneurs to possess grit and humility in pursuing their respective philosopher’s stones. Perhaps the nature of the stone is its dynamic and ever-changing characteristics, which may be similar to social business models. The model that works now may not work in the future. Therefore, social entrepreneurs must be flexible and ready to search for social business models that are, at worst, as elusive as the proverbial philosopher’s stone.
Such is the alchemy of social entrepreneurship—pursuing an objective that is, perhaps, as impossible as transforming lead into gold. Thus, we must support the change-makers who dare to invent social business models similar to how alchemists searched for the philosopher’s stone.
As a final thought, successful social business models thrive on an ecosystem of support. If the philosopher’s stone is, indeed, the proper metaphor for social business models, then each of us as prospective supporters of social enterprises hold a key piece to manifesting the proverbial philosopher’s stone.
Patrick Adriel H. Aure is an assistant professor at the Management and Organization Department, Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business, and head of the Social Enterprise Research Network of the Center for Business Research and Development (CBRD) at De La Salle University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org