As someone who has worked in development for approaching 25 years, built an organization from the ground up and designed a product that has reached global scale, I’ve done my fair share of reading on the subject of social change over the years. Books on the topic are in high demand, and quite a few have been written to try and serve the needs of those curious about their role in helping make the world a better place.

Entrepreneurship is messy; it’s often challenging, horrible, painful, and even frustrating at times. Tweet This Quote

One of the problems I’ve noticed, though, is these books are often written by “experts”—either business consultants or academics—who analyze the field from an outsider’s perspective, unpicking what makes a successful social innovation or entrepreneur. In most cases, these people were never fully active in the field, and even fewer have been entrepreneurs themselves. As a result, most lack the personal experience or connection needed to give the fuller picture.

From an outside perspective, it’s quite easy to apply theories, or turn to business schools to find patterns and structures that make sense of the data. It’s more manageable, and often easier, to think in terms of value propositions, cost structures, and customer segments. Many of these books also attempt to package social innovation into a series of neat steps which, when followed, will lead to a successful social enterprise.

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The truth is, entrepreneurship is messier than that. It doesn’t follow a neat timeline; it’s often challenging, horrible, painful, and even frustrating at times. We need to do a better job of making sure more people get the whole story—the good and the bad. Entrepreneurship is a difficult journey, and because of this success is even more rewarding.

Real life innovators and entrepreneurs often reveal this when given the chance to tell their own stories, but their voices are largely missing from the literature. We need to do a better job of giving them a platform to speak first hand about who they are, what they do, and why they do it.

ken banks book

Plugging this gap was one of the main reasons I decided to publish Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation—International Case Studies and Practice. Almost blatantly un-academic in its language, it contains thirteen case studies from around the world written by entrepreneurs—people who have lived on the ground, identified the problems, built the products, and gone through the pain to overcome barriers in order to get where they are today. To not let them share their stories, in their own words, seemed like a large oversight, and something that needed correcting.

I realized the power of first-person stories when I began asking FrontlineSMS users to write about how the messaging platform was helping them in their work. Back in 2005, few people were giving platforms to their users to share their stories, yet for me it was the most inspiring aspect of the work. Not only did it encourage me to go on when things got tough, but it also helped shape my understanding of how the software was being used, and it inspired other users to reach out and deploy it. My personal connection with these users was critical to my, and their, success.

We need to do better at giving entrepreneurs a platform to speak about who they are, what they do, and why they do it. Tweet This Quote

In my new book, I personally know many of the 13 entrepreneurs featured and have had the pleasure of watching their work grow over time. Most outsiders looking at these case studies would have only seen them at the point of success, but I saw them at a point where they didn’t know if they would succeed or fail. Witnessing the journey is as critical as seeing the destination.

The thirteen entrepreneurs in the book tell their stories with a brutal, refreshing honesty. They talk about their childhoods, what their parents were like, and their winding paths to entrepreneurship. No part of their story is glossed over.

From a life-saving project that brings solar-powered lighting to midwives in Nigeria, tools to help activists spread democracy, a massage to relieve the effects of autism and empowering conservation in North Africa, to a news dissemination service that’s grown from small beginnings to have a global impact, each case study in the book draws out the lessons learnt by the innovators, providing guidance and advice for those looking to follow in their footsteps.

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One key objective of the book is to inspire people by ‘humanizing’ entrepreneurs and democratizing social change. Although the individuals achieved great things, there’s no reason why many others can’t follow their path. The book hopes to make their successes feel realistic and accessible to others—especially younger generations.

Young people today are often less cynical, more open to what’s happening around the world, and more eager to help. If we’re to make progress in our search for answers to some of the bigger questions facing the planet, then we need all the help we can get, in particular theirs.

As for me, if I can make use of my 20+ years in international development to encourage others to take an interest, I think that’s a perfectly good use of my time. At this stage in my career, I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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About the author

Ken Banks

Ken Banks

Ken is the founder of, Means of Exchange, and FrontlineSMS. He is a Pop!Tech and Ashoka Fellow, Tech Awards Laureate, and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, and has been internationally recognized for his work applying mobile tech for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. Ken is also the Entrepreneur in Residence at CARE International.

  • Jessica

    Thank you for this insightful article! I think it is critical for entrepreneurs to share their honest thoughts with those looking to (or not to) pursue some sort of entrepreneurship. As you mentioned, being down below, it looks impossible to achieve the success that many entrepreneurs have achieved, and having an honest, open template to what the journey really looks like, could create a world of fascinating entrepreneurs! It doesn’t matter what the entrepreneur wants to do or create, but a guide to what it may look like getting there would provide some encouragement and support along the way, while making the attainability seem a lot less scary. 🙂

  • Katie Frank

    I really enjoyed this article and found it extremely helpful. It was very refreshing to read an honest article about entrepreneurship. Although the road of entrepreneurship is undoubtedly a difficult one, I found your account to be inspiring. My only question is what can I ,as a college student, do now to better prepare myself to be an entrepreneur in the future?

  • Logan Coffman

    Ken, I think all too often especially for millennials like myself the “allure” of entrepreneurship, especially as the media covers it cuts out some of the honest trials and tribulations that many entrepreneurs deal with. Your case studies give such an upfront, human account of what it’s really like to be a social entrepreneur – thank you for shedding light on the difficult work so many are engaged in. The world is better for it!

  • Claire Salvucci

    I found that this article raised a lot of good points. It is useful to learn about real entrepreneurial stories for those to who are interested in starting their own business. While learning business techniques from a book can be insightful, I have found that experience-related learning is more beneficial. It is important for people to hear both the good and bad experiences related to starting your own business.

  • Ruiz Estrada

    This is a wonderful article. I love how you went out and recorded peoples perspectives on the matter. As we all know, entrepreneurial-ism is not one sided. A concept like that is global and it’s super important to get multiple perspectives in order to help define who we are and we can be the best as entrepreneurs.

  • Hjordis Robinson

    I am also a fan of this article because I feel as though personal stories and accounts are crucial to the understanding of this topic. By including first hand experiences, the reader is able to get a more accurate description of what entrepreneurship can be like. Additionally, I believe that it is extremely important to knowledge the importance of entrepreneurship and of the opinions of individuals pursuing success in different fields.

  • Kunal Patel

    This article really has so much truth within it and I truly believe being an amateur in the business world, sometimes the resources or mentors we have are way ahead of our leagues. I truly believe there will be a process of failure and to some extent all entrepreneurs hide that side of failure. Being in the Business school and reading all the relative articles to school has helped ensure my decision process is on the right path.

  • David Kidd

    I am also a fan of this article because I believe it provides a hip, fun, and fresh new way for our generation to access stories about entrepreneurship. That being said the books ever familiar form as another case studies textbook, and its unique way of advertising itself as a blog post, will sure to have it flying off the shelves.

  • Hunter Ward

    Katie, I agree. This article does get me thinking about my future. But my true question: Is it really worth being an entrepreneur? There are may risks, but are the economic rewards worth it?

  • Daniel Hartman

    Well Katie, in my opinion, I don’t think there is anything in particular that we can do in college to be more prepared to take risk than to be ready to take the risk when it presents itself. It is merely the idea of noticing when the opportunity comes along, not being afraid of it, and doing all you can to take advantage of it.

  • Sean E. Flatt

    This article made me resubscribe, thanks!

  • kiwanja

    @Katie @Daniel @Hunter – A solid education is a great grounding for entrepreneurship, where skills such as good communication (writing and speaking), an understanding of numbers and the development of an opening and inquisitive mind is key. I don’t think you can specifically learn how to ‘become’ an entrepreneur at college, but you can learn the mechanics. The best way to prepare yourself, and the best way of remaining open to opportunity, is to get yourself out there, show an interest in the world, learn empathy for others, and believe in yourself. Most entrepreneurs that succeed have amazing self-belief, and that’s generally key to their success. All-in-all, it is worth it, but you have to be hungry for it.

    @Sean – Welcome back! =)

    @Kunal @David – I believe strongly in the power of story telling, which is why I sent a year pulling the book together. Hopefully it will help people believe that anything is possible, and give them the hunger they need to succeed. If I can do it, anyone can.

    @Ruiz @Hjordis @Claire @Logan @Jessica – I’m glad the article resonated, and very much hope that the book will be useful to you, and students and entrepreneurs-to-be like you, in the search and journey.

  • Kevin Marshall

    I found this article to be very insightful, from stating that books that are used for educational purposes lack the inside stories and the ups and downs that it truly takes. We often find these stories from Ted talks, as we see many professors using Ted talks to help students understand from a personal viewpoint. I agree in texts we don’t often know the true struggle it takes to become an entrepreneur, they make it seem so easy anyone can do it and become successful but they don’t take into account on paper the time, commitment, sacrifice it takes.

  • Kade Hanson

    Stories and experiences pave the way for future learning. We learn a lot from the past and this article shows that. The honesty of this article was a positive. Hearing every side of a story is important and helps us the most for future situations. I liked this article a lot.

  • Kunal Patel

    Although this article is giving an inside take I think real entrepreneurs come from a fearless background and no matter the risks involved, if one is set to make a great idea come alive they will do it.