As we look toward the close of another year, it’s timely to reflect on the connections, experiences, and insights of the year that was, and to carry the best lessons learned into the year ahead. While December is always a ripe time for reflection, this year has been particularly full….
Between attending, designing and organizing conferences on three continents—all focused on social ventures—we have some insights of our own to share. So here are six lessons from a year immersed in social entrepreneurship. Some may be new. Some are surely familiar. But they’re all valuable to hear anew….
Social entrepreneurs aren’t like other people.
First off, entrepreneurs in general are wired differently. They embody George Bernard Shaw’s unreasonable man: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Entrepreneurs are more like artists than others in business: They’re creative. Tenacious. Resilient. And they’re always driven by something other than money.
In the case of the social entrepreneur, they’re driven by a vision of a world made better by their work. They’re activists. They see a problem of injustice, or environmental degradation, and they set about to use market dynamics and the tools of business to redress it. There’s something a little bit crazy about social entrepreneurs. And beautiful. Their dedication is inspiring, yet it’s also cause for concern: Too many social entrepreneurs sacrifice their own wellbeing on the altar of their cause. No, social entrepreneurs aren’t like other people: They need more of our care and support. In 2015, we’ll be watching for ways to help social entrepreneurs care for themselves along the way, so we can celebrate their achievements together.
In 2014, we attended… Global Innovation Summit • Skoll World Forum • Slow Money Canada • Social Venture Network • Social Venture Institute – Hollyhock • Social Change Institute • Sustainable Brands London
“Ego-systems” are over. It’s time to shift our thinking to ecosystems.
Michelle Long, the CEO of BALLE, urged us to think about the interplay of issues and the cross-pollination of ideas when talking about her work amid the complexities of local economic systems. In the ever-shifting context of even the smallest of local communities, it’s impossible to predict what will spark positive progress. And no single person or organization can have all the answers. It’s easier to foster cooperation, partnerships, multi-party collaborations, when the whole is seen as an ecosystem—mass of interconnections, each of which is reliant on the others. Each has lessons to share; each has opportunities to pursue. Together—and only by working together—we can build “the change we seek.”
Risk ≠ uncertainty. And innovation is over-rated.
It’s a simple insight, but it’s one that’s too often lost on entrepreneurs—especially those in the early stages of starting up: risk can be known and quantified. It’s distinct from uncertainty, which is the realm of the unknowable. Effective entrepreneurs don’t ignore risk, they embrace it. They work to understand what’s possible—negative and positive. And they move forward in ways that increase the likelihood of success
In many circles, entrepreneurship is conceptual bound up with innovation—using creativity and ingenuity to build something that’s never been seen before. It’s a sad bias that unfortunately does more to feed entrepreneurial egos than drive enduring enterprises. So here’s an heretical idea: Stop innovating! We have enough “bold,” “new” “breakthroughs!” Effective social entrepreneurs know this: There’s more to progress than more innovation. There are countless lessons that our forebears have learned well. We call them tradition. Or fundamentals. Or best practices. Mine the boundless body of knowledge, and you’ll almost certainly find solutions to the challenges you aim to resolve. Take a model from one time or place, and adapt it where you work. In short, slow down and look around. The solution may already be out there.
Conversations about “food security and sustainable economy” are now mainstream. So said Woody Tasch at the inaugural Slow Money Canada conference in Vancouver. And of course he’s right. When Wal-Mart makes organics a strategic priority, we know the marketplace is changing.
There’s a great deal to be learned from the lessons of sustainable food. It’s been tied effectively to broader issues of concern to everyone—like our children’s health, and the cultural value we place on sharing meals together. Food is also closely linked to local economies, which drive jobs and financial wellbeing. Of course, there’s a lot of work still to be done. Establishing legal rights for people to know whether GMOs are in their foods. Consistent regulation of organic foods (and other products). Streamlining food supply chains, and improving their impact on food security. And mitigating food waste. But demand has been ignited. Now we can stoke the fire of progress
Leadership in the face of big, thorny challenges isn’t always focused directly on the goal. Often, the most valuable thing you can do is to unify your team. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The most underused resource in entrepreneurship is vulnerability. Somehow, entrepreneurs came to be expected to have all the answers. Or at least to know exactly how to find them through ‘Lean Startup’ methodologies. Nonsense. Nobody has all the answers, and even those who have some of them quickly learn that entrepreneurship is so dynamic that the answers change from one day to the next. Effective entrepreneurs balance decisiveness with the vulnerability to share their concerns, admit their mistakes, and seek help and support.
That productive vulnerability doesn’t happen by accident. Each of us must focus time and energy on the work it takes to show up openly, acceptingly, generously. The personal work it takes to be a better human being drives the professional successes we enjoy as successful entrepreneurs. Likewise, when credit for professional successes is shared across our teams, each of us enjoys a personal lift. Is the real work of entrepreneurship really the ability to support and lift the people around us?
Finally, we were reminded again and again this year, at conferences, during convenings of like-minded leaders and entrepreneurs, and by our many incredible clients, of a singular insight that always gives entrepreneurs some relief: Every overnight success is ten years in the making. For every massive success the media celebrates, there are countless dedicated entrepreneurs working away on equally important ideas.
Social entrepreneurs face some of mankind’s and Earth’s most vexing problems. They are courageous. They are steadfast. And they wake up every morning with a mind open to a deceptively simple question: How can I make the world better today?