A few days back I finished reading ‘How to Change the World- Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas’ by David Bornstein. Supposed to be a bible in the field according to the New York Times, this book discusses how Ashoka under Bill Drayton defined social entrepreneurship and played a big role in giving voice, credibility, confidence and necessary resources to emerging social entrepreneurs in different parts of the globe. It’s replete with detailed examples of several different Ashoka fellows working on finding solutions to their local social problems. Here, I list 6 qualities of a social entrepreneur as mentioned in the book and provide my take on each.
I. Willingness to Self-Correct
In today’s lexicon self-correction is called ‘to pivot’. It means making alterations to some or all of your initial plans when you started out, to suit the changed environment. According to the book it takes a combination of hard-headedness, humility and courage to stop and say ”This isn’t working”. Inclination for self-correction comes from attachment to goal rather than a particular approach or plan.
Through the course of my project ‘One Life, One Passion’, I have realized that social entrepreneurs are not the ‘know-it-all’ people as many of us would imagine. They have a lot of questions they don’t have answers to. They know what they want but don’t know how to get it. This leads to course corrections. A woman social entrepreneur admitted to me once that her strategy of selling artisans’ handcrafted products to retail customers did not yield enough business to keep the artisans busy. She tweaked her model to focus exclusively on B2B market.
II. Willingness to Share Credit
It has been said that there is no limit to what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit. If entrepreneurs true intention is to simply make a change happen, then sharing credit will come naturally. However if true intention is to be recognised as having made a change happen, sharing credit may run against the grain says the book.
Most social entrepreneurs quintessentially display humility. They shy away from being recognised as the protagonist. Manjeet Singh, a socio-environmental changemaker once told me, “Please don’t call me a changemaker. I am just a mere facilitator. Real work is being done by the community”. This attitude is a marked departure from the conventional business and political world where everyone clamours for recognition and aggrandizement.
III. Willingness to Break Free from Established Structures
Today’s corporate world is hugely obsessed with quarter-on-quarter results and shrinking investment horizons. Investors in the tech entrepreneurship space particularly are not comfortable with a timeline of more than 2-3 years for their investees to start making profits. Compare this with a social enterprise, which may take, in most cases, 6-7 years to make profits or a reasonable positive impact. There is a dire need to evovle whole new set of yardsticks to evaluate social impact businesses and organizations.
Businesses are limited to marketing products and services for which it is possible to capture profits within a relatively short period of time. Many organizations that produce great value for society do not generate profits or take longer than investors are willing to wait.
Social entrepreneurship needs its own robust institutional support ecosystem, separate from the money-chasing venture capitalists, one that is designed to incubate promising startups, fund them and help them scale.Social entrepreneurs gain the freedom to act and the distance to see beyond the orthodoxy in their fields. This is critical because all innovation entails ability to separate from the past.
IV. Willingness to Cross Disciplinary Boundaries
A social entrepreneur’s mission is to solve a complex social problem that has no single solution and is mostly local. For instance raising income of a disadvantaged community by providing meaningful employment might lead to issues like alcoholism since sometimes male members don’t use their money wisely. In many cases, apart from technology, social problems need to be also addressed from the perspectives of psychology, sociology, ecology, economics and anthropology.
One of the primary functions of the social entrepreneur is to serve as a kind of social alchemist; to gather together people’s ideas, experiences, skills and resources in configurations that society is not naturally aligned to produce. Social entrepreneurs cross disciplinary boundaries, pulling together people from different spheres, with different kinds of experience and expertise, who can build workable solutions that are qualitatively new. The ‘Creative Combination’ on part of the social entrepreneurs may be an intuitive response to the excessive fragmentation and specialization in industrial societies.
V. Willingness to Work Quietly
Hold up a business newspaper and try to identify a social entrepreneur making front page news- be it about high-profile investments in their ventures, hiring a hotshot or the flamboyance of the founder. My personal experience of working with social entrepreneurs makes me opine that most of them are wary of publicity and projecting themselves as icons.They detest the spotlight on them.
Many social entrepreneurs spend decades steadily advancing their ideas, influencing people in small groups and it is often exceedingly difficult to understand or measure their impact.Often they become recognized only after years working in relative obscurity.A person must have very pure motivation to push an idea so steadily for so long with so little fanfare.
VI. Strong Ethical Impetus
I sincerely believe that social entrepreneurs are a distinct breed of entrepreneurs. They are much unlike their counterparts in the tech or the commercial entrepreneurship world. The locus of their ventures is steadfastly tied to their passion of doing social good. I like to call them Indie entrepreneurs.
It is meaningless to talk about social entrepreneurs without considering the ethical quality of their motivation: the why. Business and social entrepreneurs think about the problems the same way. They ask the same type of questions. The difference is not in temperament or ability, but in the nature of their visions. Every decision-whom to marry, where to live, what books to read-passes through the prism of their ideas
Being a social entrepreneur needs you to think beyond self. It needs a set of traits that are distinct from commercial entrepreneurs. While all social entrepreneurs may not display all the 6 qualities defined in David Bornstein’s epic book, what he says stands true in most cases, nonetheless.