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Dan on Being an Entrepreneur

en·tre·pre·neur [ òntrəprə núr ] – risk-taking businessperson: somebody who initiates or finances new commercial enterprises.

When we first opened THE PURPLE TREE, I am quite sure that we neither talked about being entrepreneurs nor tried to spell the word! But we were opening a risky business at a risky time in a risky place. A risky business because we were very narrowly focused on products that promoted a sustainable environment, social justice, peace, and fair trade – and that returned profits to support those causes. A risky time because we opened concurrently with the huge national and international financial crisis of 2007-08. A risky place because we were in a community and cultural milieu that supported war, had no understanding of fair trade, distrusted those who supported social justice, and mostly ignored matters of the environment. Initiating a new commercial enterprise of this sort was, admittedly, naïve, ill-timed, too focused, and under-financed. But in spite of that, there was one important factor that gave us a fighting chance, namely, we were going to become social entrepreneurs, even though we really didn’t know what to call it at that time. We just knew it had to have these elements: 1) No borrowed money and growth only as the business could produce it, 2) All merchandise had to promote or support one of our four merchandise focuses, 3) No merchandise could be the product of “sweat shops,” and 4) People were to always be more important than profit.

Since our opening, we have come to better understand that our store is a model of social entrepreneurship rather than business entrepreneurship. Like the latter, we sought to find a gap and create a venture to serve an unserved market. But while the business entrepreneurs’ efforts focus on building a business and earning profits, the social entrepreneurs’ purpose is to create social change. In summary, a business entrepreneur may create changes in the society, but that is not the primary purpose of starting the venture. Similarly, a social entrepreneur may generate profits, but for him/her that is not the primary reason for starting the venture.

Perhaps this is best summarized in terms of wealth. For the business entrepreneur, ‘wealth’ is same as profits. For the social entrepreneur, however, wealth also encompasses the creation and sustenance of social and environmental capital. In other words, using our merchandise as teaching examples, we can help ourselves and our customers learn and experience social responsibility and environmental sustainability. That is why we say our store is “good for the planet and good for its people.”

Well, you see the story still unfolding, but of course we could not have accomplished anything without our customers and recognizing that how we treat them is foundational to the veracity of our message. So keep us honest and keep us focused and know that you honor us and our suppliers by your continued support and encouragement.