Optimism and social entrepreneurship

By Editor of SocialBusiness.org

Earlier this month, Alison Craiglow Hokenberry, a contributing editor at Ashoka Changemakers, wrote an article for the Huffington Post’s Business Canada section called “How Your Small Business Can Grow Big Ideas“. In it, she writes:

Readers with even a passing understanding of the term social entrepreneurship understand that it’s about big ideas in small packages that have the potential to effect enormous social change. Social entrepreneurship is about the regional and global impact that can be unleashed if start-up solutions to stubborn, often heartbreaking local problems are given the support to grow, scale-up, and spread around the world.

Call it the power of small. If small is powerful, what’s the force and fuel that can turn it into something big? How can the local impact of a social solution become a world-changing enterprise?

But is the insular community of social entrepreneurship too optimistic? Why are things like this written? For clicks? For inspiration? Much of this conversation revolves around scaling social businesses, which is a huge challenge for many small businesses, both inside and outside of the social entrepreneurship worlds. Ashoka’s recent competition called “The Power of Small” works on supporting “entrepreneurs strengthening local economies.” There’s such thing, I think, as too much positivity. At the same time, however, I think one of the biggest takeaways from Hokenberry’s article is the importance of seeking our mentors. She writes and draws from leaders including two of Ashoka’s The Power of Small judges, Joanna Harries, director of international expansion at Endeavor, and Rob Henning, co-founder of ESPartners:

“Having access to advisors or people who can provide you with resources, people who can give you a key bit of advice at the right moment that’s going to be the difference between going down a path that would lead to failure and one that’s going to lead to success because they have been through it before — that’s critical,” Harries said.

“Role models are very, very important,” Henning added. “The [entrepreneurs] that are really smart ask, ‘where are the role models in my economy and my peer group?’ They realize that they need help, and they go and talk to people and ask for advice.”

Harries acknowledged that finding role models can be a challenge for time-strapped entrepreneurs. “Connecting the dots to mentors is sometimes difficult when you’re an entrepreneur so that you’re running a mile a minute and you don’t really have time to step back, or take a strategic view, or see the bigger picture.”

Henning said that open competitions like The Power of Small also represent a significant opportunity to learn from others. “A big value of competitions such as these is that they allow entrepreneurs to see the progression of businesses to scaling up, and to learn from that.”

Through my many interviews with social entrepreneur, I found that a majority of people thrive on the networks and community that they have worked to build. But recently, however, I talked to a women social entrepreneur who thought that sometimes these networks that are set up, that is, official organizations that foster mentor support don’t offer as much resources as they could. It all depends on the mentor-mentee relationship, of course. The bottom line is that there is no one-size-fits-all panacea to finding success as a social entrepreneur. Maybe a billion small ideas can help create change, but at the same time, structural change is the key to sustainability. The New York Times Opinionator blog turned the spotlight on “The Rise of Social Entrepreneur” in a piece by David Bornstein. He closes with a the potential he sees in social entrepreneurship, an optimistic potential that is echoed by the community at large:

We don’t know where the best ideas will come from any more than we know where the next Google will arise. The emergence of social entrepreneurship reflects this uncertainty — as well as a major new opportunity: the fact that the capacity and motivation needed to solve problems is now widely dispersed. The question is, how do we find, elicit, nurture and harness the talents of millions of potential change-makers for the greatest good? It’s not just a question for would-be social entrepreneurs. It’s relevant for policy makers, managers, educators, parents — and ourselves. Many of us have little idea of our own change-making potential. We may be in for a surprise.

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