Growing up on the island of Jersey, Ken Banks’s mother always urged him to explore its natural beauty, going on long walks to collect insects and listen to birds. Upon turning 10, she gifted him a typewriter to record his curiosity.

When he wasn’t consumed with exploring or writing stories, Ken was busy figuring out how to hack into Commodore PET computers. Once he broke the code, he started writing teaching programs for children with learning disabilities, earning pocket money on the side. Early on, he sparked a wildly successful entrepreneurial career.

We need to address the messiness involved in the increasingly lauded lifestyle of the social entrepreneur. Tweet This Quote

Knowing this story of Ken’s youth, it makes sense that despite no formal training in technology, he went on to build a life at the intersection of mobile technology, environmental conservation and international development—spending two decades in Africa in the process. Over the years, he founded, FrontlineSMS, and Means of Exchange and won several awards—he is a PopTech and Ashoka Fellow, Tech Awards Laureate and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

Despite the achievements, his journey was far from easy, clear or predetermined. Ken noticed an absence of discussion about all of the messiness involved in the increasingly lauded lifestyle of the entrepreneur. This realization prompted Ken to write his most recent book, Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

Peter Gabriel, left, and Bill Drayton, right.

Peter Gabriel, left, and Bill Drayton, right.

We are rarely told the full story of birth to success. How much do most of us really know about the early lives of Muhammad Yunus or Jacqueline Novogratz, for example? In the first foreword of the book, musician and humanitarian activist, Peter Gabriel, recognizes entrepreneurs as the “millions of unsung heroes who tirelessly fight every day for justice.” How much do we really know about the lives of these millions currently in the trenches tackling major social and environmental issues?

In the second foreword, founder and CEO of Ashoka, Bill Drayton, says, “Ken does not look at us as a Martian exploring a very foreign Earth would. He is very much one of us.” When so many outsiders and academics have tried to explain entrepreneurship with theories and clean steps, Ken comes from the same level as these millions of unsung heroes. He is nicely positioned to tell it like it is, and has created a platform for others to share their stories, too.

Entrepreneurship is an endeavor often portrayed as unattainably heroic that needs to be humanized. Tweet This Quote

Ken tells his story first, setting the tone with a no-holds-barred honesty. With the following 13 personal accounts that double as case studies, Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation invites readers to intimately understand how life as an entrepreneur actually unfolds.

The entrepreneurs hail from Brazil, India, USA, Palestine, Kenya, UK, Denmark, Tunisia and Morocco, with organizations that operate globally. They challenge and improve the sectors of health, education, connectivity, the environment, and food poverty, among others. Solutions are predominantly tech-oriented, but others include film subtitling and massage therapy. Each chapter includes the following:

  • A glimpse into childhood. The various entrepreneurs share what they were like as children and young adults, and how those experiences helped qualify them to do their later work. Laura Stachel, co-founder and Executive Director of WE CARE Solar, grew up a talented concert pianist and dancer. She went to college to pursue those, but had a health scare that propelled her toward medical school, followed by 14 years of clinical practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist. (She says the dexterity gained from piano helped her excel as a surgeon.) All of this happened before a trip to Nigeria, which resulted in her ultimate dedication to improving hospital maternity care with a solar technology solution.
  • Collision with a problem, and the motivation to get involved. 
    In his introduction, Ken states, “We shouldn’t develop solutions to problems we don’t understand, we shouldn’t take ownership of a problem that isn’t ours, and we certainly shouldn’t build solutions from thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them.” All of these entrepreneurs were directly exposed to a problem before dedicating their lives to solving it. Brothers David and Christopher Mikkelsen got involved teaching young immigrants about life in Denmark. When one of the brothers was commissioned to film a documentary, they met a young Afghan boy. His story led the brothers to build the world’s largest missing persons network called REFUNITE—all from a chance encounter.

We shouldn’t develop solutions to problems we don’t understand or take ownership of a problem that isn’t ours. Tweet This Quote

  • The raw highs and lows of their entrepreneurial journeys. Every chapter lures readers through the thought process of key decisions each entrepreneur had to make. We learn what worked, what failed, and how different stages of elation and frustration felt. For example, the story of Brij Kothari, founder and President of PlanetRead, which implements “Same Language Subtitling” (SLS) for mass literacy in India, is one of persistence in a battle against bureaucracy. He wrote all the directors of India’s regional and state television networks, and a variety of private channels, only to receive one reply. Despite international recognition, awards and financing, the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting shot him down multiple times.
  • Lessons learned, discussion questions and further reading. One of the more unique attributes of this book, and an asset for readers, is how every chapter ends with a list of lessons learned, questions to prompt further reflection, and suggested reading. Not only do the entrepreneurs open up about their stories, but they also invite you to participate. More than anything, each chapter emits the feeling of, “If we can do it, so can you”—particularly encouraging for younger generations interested in entering the space, or for any entrepreneur currently stuck in a seemingly endless rut.

We shouldn’t build solutions from thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them. Tweet This Quote

What surprised me, and what may also surprise many readers, is the vast majority of the entrepreneurs highlighted in the book incorporated as nonprofits or NGOs. Typically, with our philosophy, we believe entrepreneurs who build for-profit companies achieve higher degrees of financial sustainability, scale and thus impact. However, Ken distinguishes between “social entrepreneurship” and “social innovation,” preferring innovation because it doesn’t imply the need for traditional business skills to invent creative solutions to problems.


Don’t let the for-profit versus nonprofit debate deter you, for above all, Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation is an exercise in discovery. The book’s design effortlessly grips you, with each chapter plunging into a new geographic region to address a different issue from a unique perspective. This freshness and authenticity combats the boredom associated with your typical business school case study, and it allows the reader to draw connections between seemingly unrelated topics.

Entrepreneurship is messy, but this book doesn’t simply tell you that—it shows you. By including a variety of perspectives from all over the world, Ken succeeds in humanizing an endeavor often portrayed as unattainably heroic. They did it, and so can you.

Want to Read Ken’s Book?


About the author

Brittany Lane

Brittany Lane

Brittany is the global editor of, which exists to drive resources and value to entrepreneurs around the world solving big f*$ckin' problems. She believes lasting change happens at the intersection of entrepreneurship and empathy and that good storytelling can move mountains.

  • kiwanja

    First and foremost, thanks for the wonderfully comprehensive and positive review of the book, Brittany. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve accomplished what I wanted to given your own reaction, and I hope others get as much from it as you. I look forward, as always, to answering any questions here, or responding to comments if anyone wants to share any. Once again, many thanks!

  • Elisa

    I love the quote “We shouldn’t build solutions from thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them”. The entrepreneurship class that I am taking has been touching on so many articles recently from the unreasonable. We talked about this exact concept. You can’t just say of people in third world countries need refrigerators and create them to try and sell them. People went to these homes and stayed there for a few months to live how they lived and then invented something affordable and efficient, that these people could actually fit and use in their homes (chotukool). That is the key to helping people in other countries, living in their shoes for an extended period of time to know their needs rather then thinking we know what they should want.

  • McKenna Solomon

    I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s the most valuable thing that an entrepreneur or charity needs to understand when they’re trying to post solutions for problems abroad. Solutions have more value when the person posing them has experienced the problem first hand. That’s likely why Unreasonable has such a successful model. Providing the business know how to entrepreneurs who know the ins and outs of the issue creates more realistic solutions to problems abroad.

  • Kade Hanson

    Again I agree with both of you. Knowledge seem to be the best way for people to gain an understanding. Practice makes perfect. When looking for solutions it takes time, effort, and experience to grasp the task at hand.

  • James Robertson

    I really liked reading about the entrepreneurially highs and lows presented in the article above. It really showed how entrepreneurs fail frequently in order to become successful from learning from failure. As a student athlete and more specifically a golfer, it reminds me a lot of playing golf and how one can play so well one day and just not have it another or something worked here but didn’t there and you learn and grow along the journey.

  • Michael Kaelin

    I agree with both of you completely. Experience can bring about the best in a business, but that mixed with youth and new ideas can be beneficial as well. The mixture of both of those bring about a good formula for businesses to succeed.

  • Victor Ribakare

    The approach that is taken to dealing with problems is one i do relate with. The quote “We shouldn’t develop solutions to problems we don’t understand or take ownership of a problem that isn’t ours,” really intrigues me. There are many problems throughout our world and people are constantly being approached to help solve them but there is no need to take complete ownership of it, if we do not have a clear solution or understand the problem. We sometimes try to do too much to satisfy a lot of different people. We need to learn how to say no and take the backseat when we are not capable of making a real difference. I really enjoyed this quote and reading some of the points of this book.

  • Noah Green

    I really like the quote, “All of these entrepreneurs were directly exposed to a problem before dedicating their lives to solving it.” This seems to sum up the idea of entrepreneurship to me. I feel like the most successful entrepreneurs are those who took their idea and ran wild with it. I am not just talking about the extreme cases like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, but many entrepreneurs have a passion to put in hours of work in order to see their vision of some sort of company come true. My question for the author and anyone reading this is do you think entrepreneurs are born or made? I think it is a hybrid. People may have the genetic stamina to work hard but there is also an element of desire to succeed. Great article!

  • Katie Frank

    Great question, Noah. I often find myself asking the same question. I tend to lean more towards them being made. Although there are undoubtedly certain characteristics that most entrepreneurs are more with, I feel the entrepreneurial spirit is developed through experiences.

  • David Kidd

    A quote from this article that impacted me is “We shouldn’t develop solutions to problems we don’t understand”. This quote adds a revel of support to global entrepreneurship studies. Under my professor Erick Mueller, my class is taking a trip to Croatia next week. The goal of this trip is to do just what the quote describes, to learn about problems that affect entrepreneurs in Croatia and develop solutions for them. My question for the author and anyone reading this is when in a foreign country do entrepreneurs look for potential problems or just let those problems happen upon them? Bravo on a great article.

  • kiwanja

    Hey David. Great to hear you have a Professor who believes in the power of empathy! It’s certainly a great first step taking the time to visit the people you’re hoping to help, but my experience once you’re there is that it’s often better not to go ‘looking for problems to solve’ but to go to meet, speak and get to know the people and the challenges they face in their lives, with a completely open mind. None of the innovators in my book specifically looked for a problem to solve – they took an interest and it effectively found them. So don’t force it when you’re thinking of what you can do. Listen and learn above everything else, and it will hopefully come to you.

  • kiwanja

    Thanks Noah, Katie. It’s a great question, and one my book covers to an extent. My view is that anyone can be taught the mechanics of business models, scaling, marketing, elevator pitches and so on, but what is most important is having that flame burning within you to make a difference in the world – to see wrongs that make you angry and upset, and that drive you to do something about it. And then for you to never give up until you succeed, because you’re so passionate about what you do. That passion, concern and care for others, and positive life attitude, is something you’re born with, I think. So, the ‘spiritual’ part of the equation is nature. How you turn your solution into an enterprise and scale it – that’s the nurture.

  • kiwanja

    Thanks, Victor. And you’re totally right. Sometimes we’re more effective if we take a backseat and help someone else who might already be tackling the problem rather than doing something of our own. Ego often dictates that people like to put their own stamp on things, but that’s not always the best or right way. Be open to what your contribution to the big problems might be – after all, we can’t ALL create and run successful social enterprises.

  • kiwanja

    I like the analogy, James! Practice often does make perfect in the social innovation world – you just need to be brave when things don’t always work out, and pick yourself up and carry on. None of these problems are easy – if they were they’d have been solved.

  • kiwanja

    Thanks Elisa, McKenna, Michael, Kade. Empathy and knowledge is everything, without which meaningful solutions are going to be hard to come by. I spent about 12 years working with and living with local communities before I came up with my mobile messaging solution, and today it’s helping drive social change projects in all those places. I could never have done that if I hadn’t spent the time there – that, plus an anthropological approach to listening and learning, and not searching for something to fix. We need more anthropologists in the social entrepreneurship field!

  • Ann Matthews

    I really enjoyed this article and liked hearing all of the personal stories. I really liked the quote “We shouldn’t build solutions from thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them”. I think oftentimes, groups of people or countries want to help global issues but aren’t always involved firsthand.

  • kiwanja

    Thanks, Ann. That’s one quote which seems to have resonated most with people from the article. Hopefully people will take note, and either spend time with the communities they want to help, or solve a problem in their own.