Why Impact Entrepreneurship Matters to Me and the Cause of Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention

“Applying business skills to resolving social ills…part saint, part politician, part business person,” said Robert Redford about social entrepreneurs.

What is Impact Entrepreneurship?

Social entrepreneurs, or “Impact Entrepreneurs,” as I like to call them, bring together the best of the nonprofit heart and the for-profit efficiency. They are the ideal blend of the best of both worlds and the future of how business and social change gets done.

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On one hand the charity model is mission-driven, focused on bettering the common-good by improving lives and our planet’s well-being. For many of us, this type of work often speaks to our souls as purposeful and even as our spiritual calling. The downside of a traditional charity model, however, is that it is dependent in one way or another with donations by individuals or organizations. In other words, it’s a bucket with a hole in it. Resources in, resources drained. This makes self-sufficiency difficult.

Additionally, while traditional charities may be well-intentioned many of them take a paternalistic approach to solving problems (i.e., “We the privileged are here to help you the marginalized.”) instead of an empowerment approach (i.e., “You know best what will work for you and your people; what can you do with the resources that are available to you?”). So, in some ways, well-meaning charities might be dis-empowering groups instead of fostering innovation and independence.

On the other hand, socially responsible businesses do great work in our communities by behaving in ethical ways that are sensitive to cultural, economic, and environmental issues. For many social problems, these cause-marketing endeavors make a huge impact on breadth of reach and quality of production. That said, we can’t lose sight of the fact that socially responsible businesses are still profit-driven and that the causes they connect to are usually chosen to strategically help the bottom line. Usually unsexy things like suicide prevention are not chosen. This is a problem.

Somewhere in the middle -- between charity and corporate social responsibility -- is Impact Entrepreneurship.

While an entrepreneur thinks in terms of results and profits, an impact entrepreneur seeks results that will change people’s lives simply, quickly, and profoundly. Impact entrepreneurs use innovation and strategic partnerships to address root causes of social problems ranging from poverty to pollution, from mental illness to job seeking for the formally incarcerated. The “social profit” of an impact entrepreneur is sustainable human and economic development.

Impact entrepreneurs help communities figure out how to solve problems by conducting gap analyses – looking to address needs and build on strengths. They strive to seize an idea that fills a unique niche and has potential for scalability.

And just like in the business world, impact entrepreneurship is linked with risk. Social entrepreneurs are courageous, unconventional and able to see new opportunities when others see nothing but hopelessness.

When contrasted to charity, social enterprises don’t rely entirely on community support for their own sustainability; social enterprises work to generate the earned revenue needed to keep their operation going. Social enterprises also don’t just serve immediate needs, like food and shelter, without addressing the underlying causes perpetuating these needs. Impact entrepreneurs view marginalized communities as holding the solutions not as a passive beneficiaries. The social enterprises they build begin with the assumption of competence and resources in communities they are serving.

Probably the most famous quote about social entrepreneurship is by Bill Drayton, CEO, chair and founder of Ashoka, “Social entrepreneurs are not content just to give a fish or teach how to fish. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the fishing industry.”


 At a very young age, Carson was wheeling and dealing. A born entrepreneur.

At a very young age, Carson was wheeling and dealing. A born entrepreneur.

Why Impact Entrepreneurship Matters to Me

I became interested in impact entrepreneurship while I was getting my Masters in Nonprofit Management at Regis University and took a course on social enterprise.

The angels descended.

As I read the assignments and dug deeper, I thought, “This is me.”

I liked the ideas of blending concepts of capitalism and social change. I loved the framework of linking innovation and empowerment.

And, what made it even more meaningful -- this was one way my brother and I could stay connected. Before he died of suicide, Carson was an incredibly successful entrepreneur whose expressed legacy was to help young people continue their education in entrepreneurship studies. By pursing impact entrepreneurship in suicide prevention and mental health promotion, I get to both honor my brother’s legacy while preventing his tragic suffering and death from happening to others.



Why is Impact Entrepreneurship Relevant to Suicide Prevention?

Many people experiencing suicidal despair feel like they are a burden on others. The traditional model of charity can reinforce the notion that they are helpless and draining social resources. By contrast, the model of impact entrepreneurship allows people who’ve experienced hardship to leverage their lived experience to solve problems for their community. Rather than feeling disempowered, they can make meaning out of their struggle and feel good about contributing the betterment of something larger than themselves.

You know what else? Entrepreneurship is cool. For once, it is nice to have suicide prevention co-branded with something that is an attraction rather than with something that is daunting, mysterious or repelling. Interestingly, many entrepreneurs live on the spectrum of mental health conditions and walk that fine line between genius and madness that gives them the edge of vision, drive and creativity. Bringing these two worlds together is a win-win – entrepreneurs gain more insight into increasing their resilience, and suicide prevention gets a facelift.

Furthermore, suicide prevention is in need of a little “positive disruption,” as my friends from CNQR say. We need to shake up the way we have faced this problem, because our approaches to date haven’t worked. Impact entrepreneurship inspires new perspectives and the reward of revenue for creative, market-based solutions.

Calls to Action

In conclusion, my calls to action are this:

  • Entrepreneurs – we need your talents in suicide prevention and mental health promotion. Help us find new approaches to healing and preventing despair. Help us bring a business mindset and efficiency to our efforts. Help us see that while we are holding endless committee meetings and reading reports from blue ribbon panels, people are dying. Encourage the mental health community to be bolder and respond with more urgency. Give us the courage to try new things that break the mold.

And while we’re at it, let’s also find a way to improve the mental health of the start-up community.

  • Suicide prevention and mental health promotion folks – let’s think and act more like entrepreneurs. Let’s take some calculated risks and shed the “business as usual” mentality. Let’s create social enterprises instead of disempowering agencies. Let’s stop complaining about our lack of support and start maximizing the resources we have. Our number one asset?: our stories of hope and recovery.

In closing let’s remember the great words of Sharad Vivek Sagar, one of the top social innovators of our time. He said, “For too long, information, opportunities, and resources have been constraints, they need to be the bridges.”

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Feel free to re-post this graphic. If you do, please link the post to this article and/or www.SallySpencerThomas.com