The Social Entrepreneur – Now & Next

The Social Entrepreneur – Now & Next

I was recently shocked to overhear a conversation where people were dragging down, even attacking, a highly successful social entrepreneur. They were talking about someone whose social enterprise is kicking huge goals and deserves every accolade. Instead, I had to listen to this person being called a ‘heropreneur’, a ‘legend in their own lunchtime’, and 'self-serving'.

Were this a one-off, I could shrug it off and move on, but I’ve heard this kind of commentary a bit too much recently. I have also detected a strong dose of the renowned Aussie Tall Poppy syndrome in the way people have taken to this mean spirited narrative.

It seems far too soon to write off a profession that was only identified a short time ago. I was as surprised as anyone to be named a ‘social entrepreneur’ in 2002. The term came fresh off the boat from the UK via Nic Frances MBE who, with others, established the Social Entrepreneurs Network. The first Australian gathering of we so-called ‘social entrepreneurs’ was held that same year.

It was a personal turning point for me. For the first time in my professional life I felt I was part of a ‘tribe’ of likeminded thinkers. Before then, we had mostly been in traditional not for profit organisations or government agencies, trying new things, creating chaos and confusion. We were kicking goals for sure, but lacking support. (Today days these kind of internal disruptors are called ‘Intrapreneurs’ – leading entrepreneurial activity from within – and are hot property in innovative businesses and organisations. How times have changed!)

We social entrepreneurs discovered there were agreed terms, attributes, personality profiles and, most exciting of all, other people who didn’t think we were completely insane. And not just each other, but people from other professions and business entrepreneurs who were beginning to actively support and back people like us. It is hard to describe the relief! I don’t want to overstate it – it is not as profound as discovering someone else with your rare disease or a lifesaving treatment – but in terms of finding an identity and having found where you belonged, it was right up there. The power of that experience has driven me to identify and back entrepreneurs to meet, learn and grow from each other ever since.

Those early, heady days are past and we have continued on our individual, collective, sometimes competitive, journeys. The social enterprise sector in Australia has grown to become an eco-system with plenty of exciting opportunity and growth ahead.

But what of the individuals in this sector, the social entrepreneurs, and why the derisive ‘heropreneur’ label all of a sudden?

Firstly, let’s disabuse ourselves of any fantasy and fallacy which may exist about entrepreneurs, of any ilk. By definition, any entrepreneur needs to fundamentally believe there is a better, smarter, faster way of doing things; have DNA saturated resilience; the instant ability to turn adversity into opportunity; and, a fairly healthy (read: bulletproof!) ego to back themselves.

Now let’s address the 3 significant risks social entrepreneurs do face.

The major criticism levelled at social entrepreneurs with the ‘ heropreneur’ tag is that there are people walking around with ‘a solution looking for a problem’, and therefore a risk they could do more harm than good. The legendary Peter Drucker said it best in his usual profound and rather Dr Suess-esque way: “There’s a difference between doing things right and doing the right thing. Doing the right thing is wisdom, and effectiveness. Doing things right is efficiency. Almost every major social problem that confronts us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter”.

Dr Pamela Hartigan, the extraordinary Director of the Skoll Centre for Entrepreneurship in Oxford, UK, champions the need for her MBA students to ‘apprentice the problem’, undertaking the research and building an evidence-base before taking action. Absolutely right. The majority of social entrepreneurs I know are in communities, geographic and otherwise, addressing market, system and a myriad of other failures. They may be faced with unsustainable or restrictive funding models, looking to raise new funds, to educate, create awareness and/or drive social innovation. Communities don’t need cowboys/girls/people! to ride in and help or save them, they need collaborators to work with them.

The second risk is the disproportionate level of responsibility – emotionally, intellectually, monetarily that entrepreneurs take upon themselves. They rarely pass the full impact of this onto their teams, unless they have a true co-founder. This means they remain somewhat separate and isolated, believing they are protecting their team from the white hot fear of staring into the abyss. I believe this somewhat misguided personal ‘sacrifice’ has skewed the focus of the work and led the entrepreneur themselves to become the focus of the business. In a world driven by multiple media platforms, we have somehow been convinced that we are like products with a ‘brand’ value.

The moment any social entrepreneur mentions growing their ‘brand’ to me (and there have been many in recent years!) I pretty much end the conversation. The impact of your work will create the support base, build the movement and raise the funds needed. It’s not actually about you, it’s only ever about the work in social change. Spend time on that, not cultivating your ‘personal brand’.

The third risk is that fear of failure prevents learning and personal growth, the two most essential attributes of any successful entrepreneur. If there was one serious flaw of the entrepreneur it is probably the inability to ask for help. The drive to succeed, to achieve, to be right, can override the level of self awareness required to admit when you need help both personally and professionally. Unlike other professions, which have systems built in and around people to monitor performance and results, the entrepreneurs ability to fly like Icarus – solo and too close to the sun – is all too evident in the level of reported burnout.

It’s hard to gain mastery in any one thing as an entrepreneur. Instead, entrepreneurs are often skilled at many things – particularly in the startup phase – including pattern recognition and picking the right ideas, attracting people and building teams. This adaptability and agility turns out to be pure gold in this time of our history.
None of the above makes for a heropreneur in my view. Like anything you’re passionate about doing it takes less raw talent and more hard work to be successful. You must have a strong sense of purpose, be courageous and driven to be a social entrepreneur. You must also know when to get out of the way. I have seen many entrepreneurs paralyzed by founders’ syndrome due to lack of an exit strategy.

So what of the future? In a sector bulging with NFP’s, volunteer organisations and social enterprises – 1 for every 400 Australians at last count – I am excited about the next iteration of the social entrepreneur. What I call the ‘networked entrepreneur’, where social entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and innovators get around ideas, problems and solutions together. Turns out innovation is a ‘team sport’ as Dr Tony Wagner from Harvard states in his latest book, Creating Innovators.

There are obvious and practical reasons why this new entrepreneur might be useful, including sustainability, but more importantly in the maturing of any sector there needs to be the opportunity for people to draw on other ideas, expertise and to work together, on things that matter. The best social entrepreneurs I have seen work in a multi-discipline teams and collaborate with clients or end users to co design solutions.

Ashoka ran the entrepreneurs’ challenges for a few years. At FYA we are taking this idea a step further. Our 2016 Young Social Pioneers, announced here today, will work in domains with young people from a diverse range of social change interests and experience. In FYA’s new social enterprise Youth Futures Lab, aka YLab, we are building regional, national and global teams of young social entrepreneurs, innovators and social sector leaders. YLab teams are specifically trained and paid to work together on local, national and global projects. For example, we are already building teams around topics like city resilience, with experienced social entrepreneurs providing leadership and subject matter expertise and young people co-designing how we might successfully live, work and play amidst the rapid explosion of urban environments around the world.

The ‘networked entrepreneur’ of the future has no less purpose, passion and drive however they are no longer alone nor working in isolation. They will possess a vast toolkit, a rich, diverse network of others to draw upon, and a global platform from which to experiment, innovate and collaborate.

In the face of massive global challenges: the survival of the planet; rising inequality which sees 1% of the planet own 99% of the wealth; and, in Australia, an ageing population which will see our workforce decrease to 2.5 workers for every 5 retirees in the decades to come, we are going to need fresh ideas and unfettered thinking.

I can’t think of a better time and place to build next generation social entrepreneurs.

Jan Owen AM
Foundation for Young Australians