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The Rise of the Social Entrepreneur

January 30, 2008


New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof, while in Davos, Switzerland, covering the World Economic Forum, came across a very different group of people than the normal politicians, business people, and protesters [“The Age of Ambition,” 27 January 2008]. He calls them “social entrepreneurs.


With the American presidential campaign in full swing, the obvious way to change the world might seem to be through politics. But growing numbers of young people are leaping into the fray and doing the job themselves. These are the social entrepreneurs, the 21st-century answer to the student protesters of the 1960s, and they are some of the most interesting people here at the World Economic Forum (not only because they’re half the age of everyone else).”


Some of the social entrepreneurs he met are still in college and yet find the time to try and change the world.


Andrew Klaber, a 26-year-old playing hooky from Harvard Business School to come here (don’t tell his professors!), is an example of the social entrepreneur. He spent the summer after his sophomore year in college in Thailand and was aghast to see teenage girls being forced into prostitution after their parents had died of AIDS. So he started Orphans Against AIDS (www.orphansagainstaids.org), which pays school-related expenses for hundreds of children who have been orphaned or otherwise affected by AIDS in poor countries. He and his friends volunteer their time and pay administrative costs out of their own pockets so that every penny goes to the children.”


Klaber was inspired by another classmate who has since helped expand his organization’s reach.


Mr. Klaber was able to expand the nonprofit organization in Africa through introductions made by Jennifer Staple, who was a year ahead of him when they were in college. When she was a sophomore, Ms. Staple founded an organization in her dorm room to collect old reading glasses in the United States and ship them to poor countries. That group, Unite for Sight, has ballooned, and last year it provided eye care to 200,000 people (www.uniteforsight.org).”


If Kristof is correct, the coming generation may produce a crop of social entrepreneurs.


In the ’60s, perhaps the most remarkable Americans were the civil rights workers and antiwar protesters who started movements that transformed the country. In the 1980s, the most fascinating people were entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who started companies and ended up revolutionizing the way we use technology. Today the most remarkable young people are the social entrepreneurs, those who see a problem in society and roll up their sleeves to address it in new ways.”


The question is whether the people Kristof met represent a handful of very special people or the tip of a larger group. He believes the latter to be the case.


Bill Drayton, the chief executive of an organization called Ashoka that supports social entrepreneurs, likes to say that such people neither hand out fish nor teach people to fish; their aim is to revolutionize the fishing industry. If that sounds insanely ambitious, it is. John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan title their new book on social entrepreneurs ‘The Power of Unreasonable People.’ Universities are now offering classes in social entrepreneurship, and there are a growing number of role models. Wendy Kopp turned her thesis at Princeton into Teach for America and has had far more impact on schools than the average secretary of education.”


Kristof makes it clear that this is not just an American phenomenon. He writes:


One of the social entrepreneurs here is Soraya Salti, a 37-year-old Jordanian woman who is trying to transform the Arab world by teaching entrepreneurship in schools. Her organization, Injaz, is now training 100,000 Arab students each year to find a market niche, construct a business plan and then launch and nurture a business. The program (www.injaz.org.jo) has spread to 12 Arab countries and is aiming to teach one million students a year. Ms. Salti argues that entrepreneurs can stimulate the economy, give young people a purpose and revitalize the Arab world. Girls in particular have flourished in the program, which has had excellent reviews and is getting support from the U.S. Agency for International Development. My hunch is that Ms. Salti will contribute more to stability and peace in the Middle East than any number of tanks in Iraq, U.N. resolutions or summit meetings. ‘If you can capture the youth and change the way they think, then you can change the future,’ she said.”


Anyone who has followed my blog and understands the philosophy behind the Enterra Solutions® Development-in-a-Box™ knows that I agree wholeheartedly with Ms. Salti that “entrepreneurs can stimulate the economy.” The company’s work in Kurdistan region of Iraq is aimed in part at supporting entrepreneurs. And I certainly hope that Kristof is correct that Ms. Salti’s approach “will contribute more to stability and peace in the Middle East than any number of tanks in Iraq, U.N. resolutions or summit meetings.” Certainly the Department of Defense’s Business Transformation Agency believes that stimulating business is good for peace. Business means jobs and jobs mean hope for a better future. At a time when the news is full of negative stories about the economy, conflicts, and crime, reading a column about hope in the future and about those determined to make the world a better place is refreshing.

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