Changing the World Isn’t Easy: Advice for Social Entrepreneurs

A version of this article was originally published on Wamda. Thanks, Nina for the edits!

Inclusive capitalism, disruptive innovations, triple bottom line, scalability… My head is abuzz with catchy expressions after spending the past weekend at the 13th Social Enterprise Conference* at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
The crowd of 1,500 young, passionate (and caffeinated) attendees bounced around the hallways between panel discussions, hands-on workshops, and the much-anticipated Pitch for Change Competition. The excitement and entrepreneurial spirit were palpable. When meeting someone, the question was not the usual “What do you do?” with which East-Coasters usually strike up conversations, but rather, “What’s your idea?”

Change the F*ing World

Daniel Epstein of Unreasonable Institute set the tone of the conference by opening the keynote address with a reminder of what unites all attendees: a deep desire to Change the F*ing World (take note of the newest acronym on the block: CTFW). He was joined on stage by Kavita Shukla of Fenugreen, Lauren Bush of FEED, and Taylor Conroy of Destroy Normal – three young social entrepreneurs making an impact.
One of the topics discussed was fundraising. Taylor’s advice: the most effective way to raise funds for your project is to reach out to people you personally know, ask for little (microgiving), show them the tangible impact of their gift, and finally, acknowledge them (a little recognition never hurts). Lauren’s FEED Project which has sold over half a million bags, providing 60 million meals in the process, perfectly illustrates the last two points: every FEEDbag features a printed number on it that indicates how many children are being fed by your purchase.

The conference did not fall short of patting on the back inspirational talk by charismatic personalities. Judge for yourself with these selected quotes:

  • “Most people need to see it before they believe it. Social entrepreneurs believe it before they see it.” (Martin Burt, Fundación Paraguaya)
  • “Social entrepreneurs are self authorizers, giving themselves permission to do what needs to be done to change the status quo.” (Daniel Epstein)
  • “We’re not giving fish or teaching people to fish, we’re changing the fishing industry” (Bill Drayton, Ashoka)
  • “Innovative leaders have the audacity to dream, and the tenacity to deliver” (Judith Rodin, Rockefeller Foundation).

Fail fast. Fail often. Try again.

Margaret McKenna, who manages a hundrer million philanthropic dollars as the president of the Wal-Mart Foundation, tempered the excitement: “Social entrepreneurship often translates to ‘I’m going to start my own thing so I can be the president of DoingSomethingGood’,” she pointed out. But she reminded the audience that doing good while doing business is not an easy task. The structural and managerial challenges facing social entrepreneurs are real. Indeed, another recurrent theme at the conference called for getting comfortable with risk, practicing making mistakes until you get it right, and accepting failure as an intrinsic part of the game. Timothy Prestero, CEO of Design that Matters spoke of the importance of prototyping when innovating for the Bottom of the Pyramid.  “Somebody in the world knows that your idea sucks, and the sooner you find them, the better.” Jo-Ann Tan of Acumen Fund echoed the sentiment: “small incremental insights are more likely to lead to success than one big ‘aha’ moment.”

Scalability vs. Contextualized Impact

As I wandered from panel to panel, one dichotomy particularly struck me. On one hand, social entrepreneurs and practitioners stressed the importance of adapting their goods and services to the specificities of the communities they are trying to serve. On the other hand, the same investors that these entrepreneurs are hoping to attract stressed a different dimension: scalability and replicability.
While it is true that measuring impact is crucial, using the wrong metrics distorts incentives. I would argue that replicability is not always the right test for worthiness of receiving capital – after all, what matters isn’t the number of people touched, but rather the number of people served. So social entrepreneurs need to keep in mind that in absence of good measures of success, also need to be aware that their reputation, their skill at leveraging their network, and interpersonal relations matter all the more.
Change doesn’t happen overnight, and only 9 percent of all startups survive their first year of existence. But events like the Social Enterprise Conference are a good reminder of why each year, a larger number of people take the risk of becoming social entrepreneurs, hoping to CTFW.

Follow #socent and #impinv on twitter to get plugged in on news from the social enterprise and impact investing spaces.

* Named by Forbes.com as one of the “Top 12 most influential and exclusive executive gatherings” in 2009 (along with the World Economic Forum at Davos, and TED), the student-run conference is jointly produced by Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was attended by 1,500 participants and 75 speakers.

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4 thoughts on “Changing the World Isn’t Easy: Advice for Social Entrepreneurs

  1. Such an interesting image to draw me into your blog post from the WordPress list of blogs! Then I saw Harvard mentioned and thought: “Yes! This blog, I shall follow”. I’m a complete beginner in social enterprise in Northern Ireland, and – like your post mentions – I fail as early and as often as I can at the moment! All progress is a bonus for me… 🙂

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  3. Everyone loves to read other peoples success stories. It provides us with evidence that amazing things do happen to normal people. By learning what they did to succeed we come one step closer to success ourselves. Such is the case with the ten stories told in Net Entrepreneurs Only – 10 Entrepreneurs Tell the Stories of their Success by Gregory K. Ericksen and Ernst & Young..

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