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How Social Entrepreneurs Can Edge Out the Competition

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Ashoka's social entrepreneurship competition -- called The Power of Small: Entrepreneurs Strengthening Local Economies -- isn't just for young people. But it sure seems that way.

"When you look at the ideas coming in through the competition you see a disproportionate number of young entrepreneurs, because they really have the energy and vision to create these opportunities," says Tim Scheu, a senior change manager for Ashoka Changemakers, the Arlington, Va.-based association of social entrepreneurs which along with software provider SAP is hosting the competition. That competition, which includes a cash prize of $10,000 and technology support for four winners, seeks innovative strategies that help emerging entrepreneurs and small businesses grow and thrive in underserved communities.

Though the time would seem to be ripe for entering this competition or one like it, you'd better act fast. Sept. 5 is the deadline for nominations and applications. You'd better also step up your game when it comes time to compete. Experts say that as this field becomes more popular, it is becoming harder for individuals to get their foot in the door.

Here are five tips they share with aspiring social entrepreneurs looking for their big break:

1. Get socially educated

More high schools and colleges are offering courses and even full programs focused on social entrepreneurship. The University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business explores ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) issues within its MBA program, while Babson College's Social Innovation Lab brings together an interdisciplinary group of students and mentors to build a better world by tackling food, design and supply-chain problems.

Related: Social Entrepreneurs Need to Make Money Too

"I see a trend now where many CSR professionals have advanced degrees," says Brittany Lothe, head of CSR at SAP. "It doesn't need to be an MBA, but oftentimes at least a Master's degree level when you look at some of the competitive CSR roles."

2. Connect with the power players

Students who aren't taking in an advanced degree may want to seek less formal opportunities that still provide strong networks. There is the Young Entrepreneur Council, an invite-only group that promotes youth entrepreneurship, as well as events like Boston College's International Corporate Citizenship Conference, which is to be held in April.

Volunteer work, or a part-time internship, can also go a long way in finding noteworthy organizations that may be hiring and providing on-the-job training. While some aspiring social entrepreneurs go abroad to beef up their resume, others may want to remember: "You don't have to be living in an emerging economy to see homeless people," says Scheu.

Related: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Business-Plan Competitions

"What Ashoka looks for is people being creative and entrepreneurial in the application of helping their own communities," he adds. "Oftentimes, if you're able to see what you can bring to the world, and apply that, the job opportunities really come to you."

3. Consider career hopping

It is possible to switchover from a different industry into a company's CSR department. Lothe, for one, has a political background and worked on Capitol Hill before moving into SAP's CSR division, which boasts a more than $20 million annual budget. Some of her colleagues come from a marketing and communications, human-resources or industry-analysis background, she says.

Related: Celebrated Social Entrepreneur Luma Mufleh and Her 4 Guiding Principles

Actually making a switch isn't always easy, especially as many companies cut budgets -- and jobs. Alexandre Lemille is a partnership manager at Cisco, which announced last month that it plans to cut 1,300 employees.

4. Challenge yourself

Regardless of an employer's financial health, some individuals participate in contests outside of work or academia. While earning his MBA, with a major in social innovation, Lemille became a semi-finalist in both the Dell Social Innovation Challenge as well as the Hult Global Case Challenge, where he and his team created a mobile app to help finance a large-scale housing program for Habitat for Humanity.

Related: Young 'Changemakers' Have Chance to Win Money for Social Ventures

"I'm looking to change my career into CSR, but given the economic situation and slowness of the process there is nothing showing up so far, so I'm doing these activities -- both CSR and social business -- [outside of] my work," says Lemille.

5. Perfect your pitch

Conveying confidence and passion is key when seeking corporate funding for a social-impact project. But so is being realistic about what you can achieve. "The entrepreneurs who are the most successful are those who have a pretty good understanding of the market landscape around them," says Scheu. "We want you to understand the challenges and lay out strategies for mitigating those challenges and working with partners to secure the resources you need to have a social impact."

What's your strategy for raising the bar in competitions? Leave a comment and let us know.

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