At the Origins of Social Entrepreneurship: Business According to Jean-Baptiste Andre Godin (1817-“1888)

By Sophie Boutillier

Since the early 1990s, the social entrepreneur has become a fundamental actor within capitalism. But what is a social entrepreneur? The question has been debated and yet still defies consensus. Is an entrepreneur social because he founded a non-profit enterprise? If so, can he survive in the free-market economy? Or is the entrepreneur social because he is funding a social venture from profits? To illustrate this conundrum, consider 19th century French entrepreneur Jean-Baptiste André Godin (1817-1888), who was both a technological and a social innovator. He invented a new heating system and, inspired by Charles Fourier’s theory, also made a fortune creating a familistère, a type of living community in which workers willing to take part had their residence and enjoyed a wide range of welfare benefits (including health care, social security, etc). Their children were also educated by the enterprise. Godin’s economic strategy was rational because his enterprise was more profitable than others. Indeed, for many decades Godin’s familistère was the market leader. This raises another question: Is the social entrepreneur paternalistic? JEL codes: P12, 013, N83


  • entrepreneur
  • innovation
  • social economy
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