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Are You A Social Entrepreneur?

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To kick off this section, we speak with David Bornstein, who specializes in writing about social innovations. His book, How To Change The World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, profiles some amazing individuals who are part of a massive transformation. Join us as he shares a little background on Social Entrepreneurialism, and how these people are leveraging the power of their ideas around the globe.

(it) magazine: David, let's start with a little background on your journey into this arena. Did you begin your work in journalism and the pro-social sector?

David Bornstein: No, not at all...My undergraduate degree was in commerce, and I worked as a computer programmer and analyst for five years. When I was 23, I made what I now realize was a very good decision. I quit my job working as a computer programmer, and spent 12 months backpacking, mostly around Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

It was a wonderful eye-opening experience. Before that I had been, in a way, living my life on auto-pilot, fulfilling what I imagined were others' expectations about how I should live my life and the kind of money I needed to make to feel successful. When I returned home I was determined to find work that made me feel as excited on a daily basis about what I was doing as I felt when I was traveling for that year. So I thought that through journalism I'd have the opportunity to travel and meet people and develop relationships and really see the world through this profession.

(it): What sparked the idea of your book, "How to Change the World"?

DB: I began looking around for stories that gave me a view of the world that was fresh, ideas that were not being covered by the normal media sources. And that's when I heard about the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh, which provides microcredit to the poor. I ended up spending about a year in Bangladesh over a two year period and not only did I see that the Grameen Bank was working, but I came to understand the tremendous power of social entrepreneurship. The Grameen Bank has demonstrated the power of microcredit so successfully that there are now 700 microcredit organizations in Bangladesh and several thousands worldwide reaching close to 100 million families.

I was quite surprised when I realized that the Grameen Bank hadn't been started by a governmental organization. It wasn't an international aid project - it had been built by an entrepreneur. And I was surprised to see that Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank, was very much like other entrepreneurs whom I'd read about in business. He had an idea. He saw over the horizon to a new opportunity that other people didn't see or didn't believe in and he built a remarkable organization to realize his vision.

If we want to see more innovative organizations like the Grameen Bank, we will have to support the people who build them, people like Muhammad Yunus. There are so many other social entrepreneurs emerging around the world. Ashoka, the organization that is largely featured in How to Change the World, does go around the world looking for social entrepreneurs to provide support to them.

(it): Could you clarify for our audience your definition of the terms "social entrepreneur" and "citizen sector."

DB: A social entrepreneur is someone who has the qualities of an entrepreneur: creativity, street savvy, persistence, belief, and so forth, but who uses those qualities to advance a social change primarily rather than primarily build a business for profit. But the single most important quality that social entrepreneurs have that make them successful is the ability to get many other people to work together effectively. The social entrepreneur is not a triumphant individual who goes and saves the world; he or she is a mechanism for pulling together different kinds of knowledge and resources and then bringing a common purpose and focus to them.

Citizen sector is a term that Bill Drayton [the founder of Ashoka] coined. It's the other 'private' sector where people acting in their full capacity as citizens build these structures that create social value. It's not government. It's not business. It's the sector that encompasses the environmental organizations, the health organizations, new education models, new advocacy organizations, independent living centers, and the like. This is the place where most social entrepreneurs operate, although they are increasingly making inroads into the governmental and business sectors, as well.

(it): What are a few characteristics that make social entrepreneurs different from other people?

DB: I would say that the vast majority of people in society have more entrepreneurial ability than they know about or will ever use. I think the difference with social entrepreneurs is that they usually had an experience early in their life of feeling powerful, and that helped them activate their potential.

The other thing is they also tend to have had some experience in their lives that was painful. And I think that is one of the reasons that they tend to have very strong feelings about injustice. They also very often have people in their lives who are deeply ethical-a father, a grandfather, a mother, a teacher perhaps-somebody who impressed upon them the idea that to live a good life it is not enough to go out there and make money or seek success in a purely materialistic sense.

(it): Over the past fifteen years that you have explored this area, can you explain the increase in people devoted to being social entrepreneurs?

DB: I think it has to do with major historical forces that are converging now in history. I don't think that there's been any change in the basic physiology of the human being in the past twenty or thirty years -- the same yearnings have always existed. What has changed is the context: What people see, where they live, what they hear about, and especially the options they have in life. And I think what we're seeing with social entrepreneurship is the yearning to build things in the world, to seek meaning, to be effective, to solve problems because you can solve them and because it gives you a great sense of satisfaction to do so.

People are much more free to build the things that they would want to build naturally but in the past were prevented from doing because of social and political constraints. If you look back 25 or thirty years ago in many parts of Latin America or Africa or Central Europe, if you tried to be a social entrepreneur, well, it was very likely that you might find yourself in jail. And if you go back another twenty years in a country like India, the same thing would have come to pass. Gandhi was put in jail by the British for his efforts, we must remember. Around the world many of these shackles have been removed, and the proportion of educated people is much larger than it was in the past. If you put these forces together and add to them the liberating power of the Internet, you begin to see that there is much more capacity around the world for people to be creative.

(it): So, it's all about unleashing people's full potential...

DB: Yes, absolutely...in the case of the Grameen Bank, it became very clear that by directing resources to people who were historically always excluded and marginalized - poor, village women -- this unusual bank was helping millions of people to discover their own potential and to use their abilities to transform their families. There are still billions of people who don't have avenues to fully discover, let alone apply their initiative, their enterprise, their good sense, even their capacity to care for others. And I think that freeing this vast potential is the next evolutionary step for humankind.

(it): How can these change organizations work more effectively with the other sectors to achieve success?

DB: The best thing right now is to try to pull in talent from the professions and from the business sector. And vice versa, people who have had experiences changing the world and working with social entrepreneurs should inject themselves into the private sector and in government. What that means is for anybody who is looking for a different kind of career, this is a sector where they can engage themselves both meaningfully and also at a very high level of engagement. Because once you have a taste of what's possible, it's very hard to go back to business as usual.

(it): How can we support this exciting movement today?

DB: I think we need a hundred more books about social entrepreneurs, people looking at all these questions we've been discussing...because ultimately the best ideas for solving social problems are not in the hands of government, big development or universities. They're in the hands of the social entrepreneurs. Governments need to recognize that the social entrepreneurs are their best policy-implementers; and we need businesses to recognize that the long-term health of the economy, and their own enterprises, will require creative solutions to a host of problems in education, health-care, environmental protection, and many other areas. Right now, social entrepreneurship is decentralized and under-funded and under-researched. If we could bring more resources - more money, more people and more attention - to what the social entrepreneurs are doing, we could dramatically increase the rate of social problem-solving.

And twenty years from now the world will look very different.

Story telling is a key part of all of this. People learn best through stories. If you want to encourage people to become social entrepreneurs, or to work with them, the best thing you can do is expose them to people who are doing exciting things and having real impact. To pursue challenging work of your own choosing, with great colleagues, taking on major problems and building solutions, maybe even making a mark on history - that is a turn on. That's why I think of social entrepreneurship as the unexplored landscape of modern life. It's the place where people are looking beyond the slots that society has set up for them, where they are forging their own pathways and shaping the future. It's the new frontier.

- (it) -



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