Towards Sustainable Development: What is a Social Entrepreneur?


intentBlog: Towards Sustainable Development: What is a Social Entrepreneur?

London, UK - 17 August 2006 - Having spent time earlier this year as a keynote speaker and panellist on New Generation Philanthropists at The World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship alongside Al Gore, Robert Redford, Sir Ben Kingsley, Jeff Skoll, Sir Ronald Cohen, Bunker Roy and Mohammad Yunus, at The University of Oxford, in my capacity as the co-founder of The Philanthropia -- Trinity Club, Syndicates and Ethical Investment Funds -- in Switzerland, the questions that have been foremost in my mind are as follows:

1. What precisely is a 'Social Entrepreneur'?; and

2. How can the rising wave of social entrepreneurship bring about a renaissance in modern capitalism to take it beyond its focus on short term gain over 90 day horizons -- rigorously imposed by financial markets -- towards sustainable investment perspectives which may be decades long?

Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you want to see in the World."

We know that a social entrepreneur is someone who develops social innovation through entrepreneurial solutions. A social entrepreneur takes notice of a social problem or need, decides to passionately pursue it, creatively innovates new solutions and entrepreneurially addresses the issue through an organised 'business plan' approach, thus allowing the social entrepreneur to address the issue of sustainability of the social venture undertaken.

According to Bill Drayton's Ashoka, the job of a social entrepreneur is to recognize when a part of society is stuck and to provide new ways to get it unstuck. He or she finds what is not working and solves the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution and persuading entire societies to take new leaps. Social entrepreneurs are not content just to offer food rations or to teach how to grow food. They will not rest until they have revolutionized the food industry.

Identifying and solving large-scale social problems requires a social entrepreneur because only the entrepreneur has the committed vision and inexhaustible determination to persist until they have transformed an entire system. Scholars come to rest when they express an idea. Professionals succeed when they solve a client's problem. Managers call it quits when they have enabled their organization to succeed. Social entrepreneurs go beyond the immediate problem to fundamentally change communities, societies, and ultimately, the world.

According to the Schwab Foundation, a social entrepreneur is a different kind of social leader who:

. Identifies and applies practical solutions to social problems by combining innovation, resourcefulness and opportunity;

. Innovates by finding a new product, a new service, or a new approach to a social problem;

. Focuses first and foremost on social value creation and in that spirit, is willing to share openly the innovations and insights of the initiative with a view to its wider replication;

. Doesn't wait to secure the resources before undertaking the catalytic innovation;

. Is fully accountable to the constituencies (s)he serves;

. Resists being trapped by the constraints of ideology or discipline;

. Continuously refines and adapts approach in response to feedback; and

. Has a vision, but also a well-thought out roadmap as to how to attain the goal.

Social Entrepreneurship describes an approach to a social issue. It is not a field of discipline that can be learned in academia. An approach that cuts across disciplines -- medicine, engineering, law, education, investment banking, agronomy, environment, etc -- and is not confined to sectors: health, transportation, finance, labour, trade, and the like. It is more related to leadership than to management.

The Barefoot College

A good example of social entrepreneurship is demonstrated by the world famous educator Sanjit Bunker Roy, who delivered the keynote address at The World Forum. He has found that tapping local wisdom and initiative can help villagers achieve empowerment.

When Bunker Roy came face to face with a devastating famine that killed thousands in the Indian state of Bihar over 30 years ago, his vocation was suddenly sealed. It would not be in the city but in the countryside, it would not be in the upper echelons of the civil service but at the grassroots, with the village people.

Since founding the Social Work and Research Centre in 1972, Roy has been living in Tilonia, a village in one of India’s largest, driest and most famous states, Rajasthan. Better known as the Barefoot College, the centre has trained two generations of villagers without any formal paper qualifications to become health-care workers, solar engineers, hand-pump mechanics and teachers in their communities.

Thanks largely to its efforts, over 100,000 people in 110 villages now have access to safe drinking water, education, health and employment. Rural youth once regarded as “unemployable” install and maintain solar electricity systems, hand pumps and tanks for drinking water. At special workshops, young artisans upgrade local skills acquired through generations. And on an average evening, about 3,000 children (60 per cent of whom are girls) spend their days grazing cattle and helping their elders make their way to night school (there are now 150 of them around Tilonia), taught by local residents with rarely more than eight years of schooling.

The project’s success is proof that sometimes an outsider’s view can be a lasting catalyst for development. Since graduating from New Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, one of India’s most prestigious educational institutions, Roy has devoted his life to Tilonia and bettering the conditions of the rural poor. It was a radical move: “If someone wants to do work in a village, the formal education system discourages him,” asserts Roy. “The mindset that this system inculcates in students is that going back to the villages is a losing proposition. Remaining in the city is considered a success.”

Roy looks upon the Barefoot College as a multiplier force that uses traditional knowledge as a tool to reach the goals that conventional government policies have often been unable to achieve. Twenty Barefoot College field centres can now be found in 13 of India’s 26 states, and the expansion is set to continue. “The idea is to use local wisdom before we involve expertise from outside,” states Roy.

In Tilonia, education and development are inextricably linked. Youth are trained to use technologies that serve their communities while children learn about environmental themes such as solar electricity, which is used in most of their schools. “Night school students learn from resource persons who are not only their teachers, but also farmers, policemen, or local officials,” explains Roy.

For Roy, taking some of the responsibility for education out of the hands of government could speed up progress towards universal primary education in his country. “Encourage private initiative without commercialising education. Give private initiative more responsibility, more space, more freedom,” he says. As things stand now, the formal system alone cannot answer the challenge of rural education. “It destroys initiative and creativity. It expects you to do everything the way they say, the way they do,” he says. The starting point is to understand the reality of the rural poor — “about 60 or 70 per cent of children never go to school in the morning because they are supposed to work and rear cattle” — and to channel these children into vocational training at an early age so that they can gain new skills while continuing to help their families.

If Roy feels that creativity is not always the strength of government, the Barefoot College is breeding its own generation of committed and politically minded individuals: in Tilonia, it is the children’s parliament, an elected body of girls and boys between 10 and 14 years of age that is responsible for making sure that schools are run properly—an ingenious way of giving children a hold on their own lives—and that of their villages.

The past two decades have seen an extraordinary explosion of entrepreneurship and competition in the social sector. The social sector has discovered what the business sector learned from the railroad, the stock market and today's digital revolution: that nothing is as powerful as a big new idea — if it is in the hands of a first class entrepreneur.

In country after country the number of citizen organizations is up hundreds, often thousands-fold. Tiny Slovakia had a handful of such organizations in 1989 and now boasts more than 10,000. Of the approximately 2 million citizen sector organizations working in the United States, 70 percent of them were established in the last 30 years. Eastern Europe has seen more than 100,000 such organizations established in the seven years following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The revolution — led by leaders committed to social entrepreneurship — is fundamentally changing the way society organizes itself and the way we approach social problems. These leaders are certainly doing more than giving food or money away. They are teaching the world to reorganise itself along more long term and sustainable lines by bringing about a renaissance in the way we think. There in lie the seeds for changing the thrust of modern capitalism towards longevity and sustainability. The renaissance in terms of measuring return on investment through emotional dividends, happiness, social responsibility, cohesion and fulfilment -- beyond the singular lens of capital and financial accounting -- has already begun!

The social entrepreneurship approach if applied on a global basis may also reduce accelerating polarisation and initiation of further wars.

To conclude with Mahatma Gandhi: "Non-violence and truth are inseparable and presuppose one another."

Yours ever


DK Matai
The Philanthropia, ATCA, mi2g.net


intentBlog: Towards Sustainable Development: What is a Social Entrepreneur?

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