The Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs

We asked readers to vote for businesses that are trying to make money and to bring about societal change. Here are the winners

Back in January, the BusinessWeek SmallBiz team asked readers to collaborate on its first annual roundup of the most promising social entrepreneurs in the U.S. The idea was to track down trailblazing companies, in operation for at least a year, that aimed to turn a profit while tackling societal problems. Over 200 impressive nominations streamed in, representing a range of industries and target markets.

For instance, $4 million BigBelly Solar, based in Needham, Mass., promises municipalities savings on time, fuel, and trucks used to haul garbage if they install its solar-powered trash compactors, and it has sold more than 2,000 of the units around the globe. CraftNetwork, with offices in New York and Bali, boosts employment in marginalized communities by connecting artisan producers with wholesale and retail customers in wealthy nations. Its founder predicts over $600,000 in revenue by the end of the year. And 12-year-old PharmaJet, based in Golden, Colo., which just received clearance from the Food & Drug Administration to sell its needle-free injection device, plans to commercialize the gizmo in third-world countries to prevent injury and the spread of disease.

After the call for nominations ended in February, our reporters and editors sifted through them, whittling the group to 25 finalists. In April we posted profiles in a slide show and encouraged readers to vote for the company they felt held the most promise. By the end of the month, over 12,500 votes had been cast.

Now, meet the winners:

No. 1 With 36% of the vote, online bookseller Better World Books led the pack. The 200-person company makes money selling books it gets for free from a network of individuals and institutions across the country. Co-founder Xavier Helgesen says the Mishawaka (Ind.)-based company has donated over $6 million to literacy programs and libraries around the world since it launched in 2002. "Right now, one out of seven people has the economic means to buy books from us," he says. "If we can bring people up to levels of equivalent literacy, we're helping our long-term business model." Helgesen expects Better World, which has secured around $4 million in equity investment in total, to bring in $30 million in revenue this calendar year and be profitable in 2010. The company sells about 10,000 books a day.

No. 2 Impact Makers, based in Richmond, Va., earned 11% of the vote. The $300,000, nine-employee health-care management and consulting company constructs disease-management programs, and performs IT work, systems consulting, and program audits. One of its big social goals is to provide free medication to the uninsured through its primary nonprofit partner Structured as a non-stock corporation, Impact Makers contributes all of its profits to charity.

No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 The next three runners-up: Londonderry (N.H.)-based organic yogurt king Stonyfield Farm (7% of the vote); university lecture video site Academic Earth (6% of the vote); and San Francisco's sustainable fish purveyor CleanFish (5% of the vote). A round of applause to all. You can read profiles on each of the top vote-getters as well as the rest of the finalists in our slide show.

Be sure to check our staff blog for periodic follow-ups on this year's alums, and keep your eyes peeled for candidates for next year's roundup. We'll post a nomination form near the top of the Small Biz channel next year. As the ranks of the estimated 30,000 social entrepreneurs continue to grow, there are sure to be plenty of outstanding contenders.

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