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Why Social Entrepreneurship Matters

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Why Give a Damn:

A Bolivian mother epitomizes why the endless hours and numerous setbacks associated with being a social entrepreneur are all worth it. Read the insights Jonathan Lewis shared about this woman when speaking at the President’s Dream Colloquium on Entrepreneurship.


The author of this post, Jonathan Lewis, is the Host of Cafe Impact which produces online leadership development videos for social entrepreneurs and the President of the Opportunity Collaboration – a strategic business retreat and networking summit for 300 senior level anti-poverty leaders.


The ‘social’ in social entrepreneurship is about listening. Listening to understand your community. And, listening to hear yourself.  Tweet This Quote

I am here on behalf of someone who couldn’t be with us today. I met her in 2005 when I was in the Bolivian Andes to visit my first micro-finance program. She was one of about 15 women sitting in a circle, dressed in traditional Bolivian clothes – colorful full skirt and a jaunty bowler hat – with dirty, snotty little kids hanging on her.

She stood to speak, and explained to the other women that – for the first time in her life – she was earning enough money to reliably feed her children three times a day on a year-round basis. The pride and self-esteem that she manifested in that moment was palpable. Her life is my motivation for fighting poverty, creating economic opportunity and moving towards economic justice. She is my moral compass.

The “social” in social entrepreneurship is about listening. Listening to understand your community. And, listening to hear yourself.

Being a social entrepreneur is the most selfish thing I do. It fulfills me as a person.  Tweet This Quote

Being a social entrepreneur is the most selfish thing I do. It fulfills me as a person. Tackling big challenges is heady stuff. It empowers you. If you’re one of those people who feel discouraged or dwarfed by the world’s problems, if you suffer from issue fatigue or use cynicism to avoid commitment, then you need to know that social change work comes with a guaranteed, life-time personal return on investment (PROI).

There is no widely accepted, working definition for what is and what is not social entrepreneurship. No professional degree. No industry code of ethics. No professional guild or union. No dues. No secret handshake.

Without asking for permission – without jeopardizing your career, your reputation or your sex life, you can start changing the world today. There are no second-class citizens in the fight for economic justice.

Working for social change is not about you being perfect. It’s about you making a difference.

To overcome 10,000 years of racial, gender, economic and environmental exploitation, we know that the poor and disenfranchised must have the power to speak up, speak out and speak for themselves.

To overcome 10,000 years of racial, gender, economic and environmental exploitation, the poor and disenfranchised need power to speak up and speak out.  Tweet This Quote

Thus, social entrepreneurship best practices start with empowerment and changing the status quo. It means economic and political opportunity for that woman in the Bolivian Andes. It means taking sides on a never-ending journey for justice.

You cannot upend the status quo without calling out entrenched interests and challenging the powerful. Be prepared to make some enemies.

Change starts with small, courageous moments of truth-telling. In the Sixties, the antiwar movement did not begin with mass protests and national political campaigns. It began with small teach-ins in church basements, labor union halls and living rooms. From there, it expanded to leafleting in front of supermarkets, on street corners and at public transit terminals.

One of my heroes, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith used to say: “There is something personally satisfying about being disagreeable by advancing the truth.” Somewhere, someone is waiting to hear your disagreeable truth.

When I was growing up in San Francisco, I attended a private boys school. Regularly, we went to the cotillion and debutante balls hosted by the private girls schools. I learned early-on that money buys access. Money decided who was at the dance – and who was not. Exclusive meant excluding others.

The fact that money is power is not a news flash. Ask any poor person.

We are in the business of economic justice.  Tweet This Quote

Social entrepreneurs are in the economic justice business. We’re not in the business of figuring out ways to puff up pension fund returns. We’re not in the business of figuring out ways to make poor women more profitable chattel. As Irish poet Jonathan Swift advised: “A wise man should have money in his head, not in his heart.”

Ideology and economic theory are not the honest work of social entrepreneurs. A drowning person doesn’t care whether a taxpayer, shareholder, or charity paid for the life preserver. They don’t care if the lifeguard is a public or private sector worker.

Social entrepreneurship needs profitable nonprofits, pioneering for-profits, principled and compassionate capitalists, government policy wonks and politicians who get that the world’s borders matter a lot less than the people who live within them. If you want a role model for changing the world, Bolivian women are the pragmatic pluralists we can all emulate.

Social entrepreneurship needs profitable nonprofits, pioneering for-profits, principled and compassionate capitalists, and politicians who get that the world’s borders matter less than the people who live within them.

A Bolivian mother worries everyday about money and so should every social entrepreneur. Cash flow management and balanced budgets are the backbone of every social enterprise and every social movement. Period. Full Stop.

In Art of the Start, Guy Kawasaki writes: “You can’t change the world if you’re dead, and when you’re out of money, you’re dead.” If you can’t (or won’t) raise money, you might be a good person, but you aren’t a serious social entrepreneur.

A Bolivian mother doesn’t get to go to economic development conferences where we talk about good management and innovative ideas. But her everyday life reminds us that work is tough and you don’t get to quit. She can’t and neither can we. Giving up is a form of arrogance and a luxury of the well-off.

Ambiguity and suboptimal solutions are part and parcel of social change work. Social entrepreneurs need to talk more often — and more loudly — about the learned attributes of good personhood: courage, compassion, conviction, character.

Giving up is a form of arrogance and a luxury of the well-off.  Tweet This Quote

I used to think large-scale, systemic social change was the only change worth doing. I now believe that a single parent raising a child – say, for example, a mother in Bolivia – makes a difference as powerful as any impact investor or NGO. When we honor change agents working at all levels of impact, we affirm that economic development means human development, and human development is the biggest challenge of them all.

Wanting to do good is one thing. Actually doing good is another. As the American historian Arthur Schlesinger once noted: “The moral advantage of being the architect of many losing causes is highly over-rated.” If you want to up the success quotient for your social enterprise, your ability to listen matters much more than a great elevator pitch, a brilliant business plan or your clever idea.

Listenership is the predicate for networking, community organizing, mobilizing political movements and wooing financial backers. Listenership makes it possible to act on client needs and stakeholder concerns. Listenership reverse-engineers the paternalistic instinct to export first world solutions into third world communities.

The consistent message from every one of the social entrepreneurs interviewed in the Café Impact video series is to get real world experience, witness injustice firsthand and become a good listener. When listening, social entrepreneurs must be high-minded without being soft-headed. That means being high-minded in our mission and hardheaded in pursuing it. It means listening to and hearing the world as it truly is.

To annoy my fellow Americans, I like to remind them that 95% of the world is not American.

For a thought experiment (which I am borrowing from a children’s book called If I Were A Village), contemplate shrinking the world’s population into a tiny village with 100 people. In our village…

  • 8 villagers speak English. 20 speak Chinese. 7 talk to their neighbors in Hindi.
  • 6 speak Spanish. 5 speak Russian. 4 speak Arabic. Another 4 speak Bengali.
  • 3 speak Portuguese. 2 each speak French, German & Japanese.
  • 37 villagers have a job. The rest of us don’t. 18 of us cannot read or write. Only one of us has a college degree.
  • The 20 richest villagers consume 45% of all the meat and fish. They also use 59% of the village’s energy.
  • 20 women — our sisters, mothers, daughters — have been assaulted or raped.
  • Half of our neighbors don’t have a sanitary toilet.
  • Just 5 people control 50% of the village’s total wealth.

In our village, market imperfections plague people at the bottom of the economic pyramid. For example…

  • In a functioning market, prices are set between willing buyers and willing sellers. But where the poor live, scarcity and monopoly means shoddy products and predatory pricing.
  • In a functioning market, consumer protection and financial transparency are enforced by a court of law. Where the poor live, property rights depend on social norms or brute force.
  • In a functioning market, investment capital moves to its highest and best use. Where the poor live, capital is rare and expensive.
  • In a functioning market, a distinction is made between public and private goods – between street cleaners and vacuum cleaners. Where the poor live, private investment is often the only investment. Life’s basic necessities come at a high price in time, money and lost opportunity costs.
  • In a functioning market, survival of the economic fittest means some businesses will fail. But where the poor live, the only ethical economic policy is — not creative destruction — but creative opportunity.

I can’t give you a formal definition for economic justice any more than I can give you a comprehensive definition for freedom of speech, community values, or human dignity.

I can tell you it makes me angry that 1 out of 7 people in the world is slowly starving to death in a global concentration camp of hunger and deprivation. 300 million of those people are children. They don’t get the minimum daily calories needed to live. It’s genocide against the poor. A war crime without a war.

Social justice work is an existential statement about your values, our values, and our shared global citizenship. In the Sixties, the Pacifist minister A.J. Muste stood vigil in front of the White House night after night, holding a single candle to protest the War in Vietnam – what the Vietnamese call the American War. One night a journalist pointed out that holding a candle was unlikely to change the government and its policies. Muste replied, “Oh, you don’t understand. I’m not holding a vigil to change the government. I’m holding a vigil to make sure the government doesn’t change me.”

Even when the results are disappointing or discouraging, standing up for social and economic justice reminds us who we are. It affirms our commitment to living an honorable life in a sometimes dishonorable world. Just as the Bolivian mother works to create a better life for her children, we all must make good on the promise to bequeath the next generation a legacy that is worthy, worthwhile and wondrous.

Be a maker of peace,
a voice of reason,
a steward of mercy,
be the hands & feet of justice.”

Jonathan Lewis

About the author

Jonathan C. Lewis is the Host of Café Impact which produces online leadership development videos for social entrepreneurs. He is also President of the Opportunity Collaboration -- a...

Jonathan Lewis has written 13 articles for UNREASONABLE.is

  • http://www.mtmcareers.com Mark Albion

    To me, Jonathan, “social entrepreneurship” is not a form of entrepreneurship; it is a form of social change. I like your definition of “social” as listening. Is this a sense of outer and inner awareness? Or something else? And don’t entrepreneurs (without the social) listen too? Thank you!

  • Hanna Boyd

    Mark, I couldn’t agree more. I think the real “listening” that sets social entrepreneurs apart from other entrepreneurs is the true empathy they feel for those who could benefit from their work. This empathy drives fuels the fire inside them that urges them to create the next BIG solution.

  • http://www.iOnPoverty.tv/ Jonathan Lewis

    My own language preference is to talk in terms of a movement for social justice. Social entrepreneurship is just today’s popular handle. For my part, I spend very little time thinking about what to call what we do. On the listening point, I like Carlos Santana” “finding the lost song within us.”

  • http://www.iOnPoverty.tv/ Jonathan Lewis

    Hanna, we are in total agreement. Listening, empathy, capacity to relate to others, etc. etc are foundational attributes. They aren’t all the skills we need by a long shot, but without those human qualities we are social change robots.

  • Marissa Forbes

    There were two parts of this article that I thought were really great. First the quote by Guy Kawasaki and how it emphasized the importance of cash flow for social entrepreneurs. I think that there are a lot of people and non-profits with awesome missions, but at the end of the day without good business practices it’s hard to be successful. The other point that I liked was the idea that people feel that they have to make huge changes for it to be worthwhile. If the general mindset could be changed, and everyone was happy with making a small difference, it would really add up.

  • Adelin Soelaiman

    Social entrepreneurship is clearly more than business and more than welfare. It is organizing sustainable life possibilities for people without compromising on the needs of the future of our planet. I see it as the benefit for three “P”s: people, planet, and profit. I agree that standing up to economical and social justice is an undeniable part of being human being. In social entrepreneurship, one is balancing equity and efficiency.

  • http://www.telluselle.com/blog Alexandra Telluselle

    This is exactly what I stand for and how I would like to make my business idea come to fruition; as a cooperatively owned worldwide franchise of Organic Wellness Centers that can house think-thanks and support groups for real self-help for those who need it the most. But how do we get investors on board, when profit for one is not the goal? Any suggestions on where I can turn? I currenly live in Sweden where I am from, but hope to move back to the US within a year.

  • Tim O’Reilly

    Social entrepreneurship is the way of the future; it is rooted in not just the bottom line of profit, but a holistic approach to business. Mr. Lewis speaks very clearly, and I am so glad he has, about the business of social justice. No longer is it just “doing” good, but creating a system of checks and balances to influence change. Coming from a business school, we often hear about how to improve profit; rather, reverse the engineering, how can we get people in and gathered around for a good cause and ultimately make a profit as a result of the ends: “creating a better world.” This new perspective is only just taking shape, and I am excited about the future.

  • chikahendrawan

    The idea of social
    entrepreneurship is really wonderful. Doing good things that will make profit.
    Even though there are many corporations in today’s world that do not value the
    importance of sustainability, I think this article has inspired many business
    students to realize that our ultimate mission to bring a good deed to the world
    will be rewarded. Mission by itself would not be sufficient to support the
    business practice, it must be accompanied with a great management system as
    well. As a soon-to-be graduated student, I feel inspired to make changes in my
    home country once I get there. This way of thinking should be implemented in
    everyone’s mindset so that world would be a much better place.

  • rhildner

    This article is exactly what I needed to read today. Sitting in my social entrepreneurship class in a cushy, top-ranked university surrounded by other privileged students really made me wonder why I was even taking this class. I tend to generalize the world’s problems and never really focus on individual struggles across our world, therefore losing my interest in solving these issues. The story of this Bolivian woman and her pride in her accomplishments reignited the spark for social entrepreneurship within me.