Every popular, rapidly growing field acquires some myths about itself that need to be examined. Here are a few about social entrepreneurship.
It’s all about the heroic, solo entrepreneur.
They do get a lot of the press, and the occasional Nobel Prize. But the reality is most impactful, lasting social enterprises are team efforts. They have to be, the range of skills needed is generally broad. Someone good at managing cash flow may not be the best people manager, or social change advocate. So, if you want to start something new, consider starting by finding a partner with complementary skills. And then build a team around you two. An old African proverb sums it up nicely: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you have to go with someone.”
It’s all about charisma.
The ability to inspire is important. It attracts attention and followers. But skill is essential too. It’s amazing how many social entrepreneurs are quiet, solid performers. They are emotionally-intelligent, not just emotional.
It’s all about creating new organizations.
A big danger of the social enterprise movement is that it might breed thousands of small, redundant, under-funded entities, all trying to tackle problems much bigger than they are. Scale is important, and often it exists in existing organizations. The mission for many innovators is to learn how to drive change in these, not just proliferate alternatives.
It’s all about the mission. It’s all about changing the world.
Social innovators know the world needs changing. They also know the important of small wins, tight-focus, and momentum building. They avoid letting lofty missions get in the way of day-to-day incremental progress. Performance counts; no points are given just because the issue being worked on is critical.
It’s all about applying business know-how to social problems.
That’s certainly a piece of it. But social entrepreneurship employs a unique set of business tools to achieve humanitarian results. Social entrepreneurs consider both economic and social performance in evaluating business decisions. Of these, priority attention goes to the social objectives. The role of economic performance is to make the benefits to society sustainable.
It’s all about applying market logic to social problems.
The market is a marvelous signaling mechanism. But it’s something to use, not idolize. Market failures abound. Social entrepreneurs are aware of them, and creative in finding good workarounds.
It’s all about learning the hard skills.
Being enterprising requires a set of hard skills, the quantifiable side of management. Social innovators have to get over any fear of numbers and arithmetic they may have acquired. These are vital to running an ongoing operation. But they are not sufficient to create a new one, especially ventures aimed at destabilizing the status quo. Social entrepreneurs must have an even greater command of the harder skills: self-awareness, emotional intelligence, connecting with others, use of influence and power, imagination and creativity, and the like. These harder skills are the ones that help some to see opportunities others may miss. They facilitate formulation of creative strategies to capitalize on the opportunities, and win the hearts-and-minds of the supporters needed to bring them into reality. The harder skills are essential to quickly building momentum and rapidly rebounding from setbacks. Sometimes they’re called “soft.” They’re not.
It’s something you can learn in a classroom.
You can learn many useful theories and concepts in courses. You can also learn how to analyze and think critically. But understanding how to apply ideas in practice takes, well, practice. Practice in the real world, a key reason all of our Social Enterprise program activities are closely connected with people, organizations, and events off-campus.