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Inspiration and Social Entrepreneurship

Meet one of my heroes. Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder of Acumen Fund, a New York based philanthropic venture capital fund with a mission to “create a world beyond poverty by investing in social enterprises, emerging leaders, and breakthrough ideas.” She has been on my list of people to meet before I die since I read The Blue Sweater, her account of her life as an MBA student and young consultant working on micro credit projects in Africa before founding the Acumen Fund. Her TED talk titled “Inspiring a Life of Immersion” was part of my inspiration to select a place like India for my year as an Ambassadorial Scholar, a place where I could immerse myself in a culture and society so different from the one I grew up in with the hope of learning more about myself, others, and the way we interact in the world.

Forbes magazine recently published their first ever List of the Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs featuring Novogratz in the cover story. A social entrepreneur is someone who uses business to solve social issues. I have been fascinated by the idea of social entrepreneurship since I first heard of it a few years ago. One major cause of the extreme poverty we see in the world today is the fact that many poor people don’t have access to conventional markets of finance, goods, and services. One solution to this problem is to fill that need by providing free food, clothing, shelter, or services to the world’s poor. Another is to work with the individual or community to build the skills, resources, or rights necessary to achieve a better outcome for themselves. It’s like the classic proverb: If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime. Well say the man already knows how to fish but doesn’t have enough money to purchase fishing equipment, or he has fishing equipment and catches more fish than he and his family can eat but doesn’t have a way to take them to the market 20 km away before they spoil. This is where social entrepreneurship steps in. A social entrepreneur would set up a for-profit venture that supplies low cost fishing equipment and probably throw a training on sustainable harvesting in with the reel. In another place with the same problem a social entrepreneur might supply low-cost smokehouses to fisherman so they can transport smoked fish to market without the fear of their stock going bad.

I think social entrepreneurship is an exciting and hopeful development in the effort to make the world a better place for all of us. A lot of damage has been done around the world in the name of aid and international development, not to mention for-profit business, and there are too many disheartening examples of people or organizations with good intentions that actually end up harming the communities they are trying to serve.

We are all waking up to the fact that businesses, governments, and even humanitarian organizations cannot keep doing “business as usual.” The needs of the world are too great, the challenges too steep, and change is so rapid that it requires our constant adaptation and best thinking. Ecologist David Orr writes this provocative assertion in his book Ecological Literacy:

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”

Social entrepreneurs are redefining what it means to be successful in business by focusing on a triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.

The Forbes list is a timely piece, recognizing the work of 30 men and women from different parts of the globe who can be inspirations to us all. Some produce low-cost solar lights, others make high-nutrient fertilizer from worm castings; the simplest ideas and innovations are often the most powerful. The author, Helen Coster, closes the article with this thought: “My hope is that years from now, our list members will be out of work, their organizations so successful that the problem they set out to solve no longer exists.” I too hope that social entrepreneurs work themselves out of a job in the years to come, but not before I can get in on the action.