Suzanne TalkingAs social entrepreneurs, we are lucky. We live each day knowing that we are making a difference in the lives of others. It is a blessing, but it isn’t always easy. Now we have a new generation of millennial social entrepreneurs starting out – inspired by hundreds of colleges offering classes on social entrepreneurship – and truly learning the difference between “doing good” and “driving impact.” As a Gen Xer, I did not have the luxury of undergraduate social entrepreneurship classes, but I have been extremely fortunate to have been taught and mentored by great social thought leaders on my journey as both a social intrapreneur and social entrepreneur. It occurred to me that we needed to pass on these lessons from social entrepreneur pioneers, whose experience enables them to share a treasure trove of wisdom with the next generation. So, I asked them one question: “What advice would you give your younger self?” Below their responses. 

Develop Core Values – Many are attracted to social entrepreneurship “to make a difference” or “to change the world.” Rolfe Larson of Joining Vision and Action suggests you “dig deeper to find core values that are personal to you and come directly from your life experience. Then, you can hold on to those core values as those inevitable challenges come your way.” In my class, we share a four-part Venn diagram that helps students define their core values and their unique value proposition. By examining the slim intersection between what they are passionate about, what they are best at, what the world needs, and what they can get paid for, my students are able to discover a good starting point for career exploration.

Start with the End in Mind – Every social entrepreneur starts with a dream, but Tamra Ryan of Women’s Bean Project and author of The Third Law encourages us to go one step further. “First, spend time to develop a detailed picture in your mind. Then, create a plan to get you there. Start with the end in mind because if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?”

Be an Intrapreneur First – It seems sexier to start your own social enterprise, but as my friend the late Jim Schorr, a serial social entrepreneur and former CEO of Social Enterprise Alliance, pleaded, “The world needs social intrapreneurs just as badly.” As a social intrapreneur at a nonprofit or socially-responsible for-profit company, you get the best of both worlds – building a venture, but with the security of a regular paycheck. However, this also means that nonprofits and businesses need to create jobs that fit this interest – most social entrepreneurs do not want to sit behind a desk all day. We need to be thoughtful about creating job descriptions that attract the most talent to the social sector and retain them by creating challenging projects, allowing them to participate in decision-making and helping them build their network.

Find an Opposite in a Partner – If you do start your own venture, know what you do well and find the opposite in a business partner. As Betsy Densmore of Academies for Social Entrepreneurship notes, “It is rare for someone to be both a great visionary and a great manager, and a growing business needs both. Without a visionary, the business is less likely to go big and without a manager, the business is not likely to go at all.”

Change Happens – Social entrepreneurs are in the business of (social) change, yet it can be challenging to implement change within our own organizations. “Change is inevitable – ride with it,” suggests Carla Javits of REDF. REDF has shown through its leadership that the best social entrepreneurs incite necessary change and take us all to the next level.

Become a Bridge Builder – Solving our most challenging problems will require social entrepreneurs who can bridge divides, move effortlessly across silos and help communities think differently about new solutions. Allyson Hewitt, of JW McConnell Family Foundation and Senior Fellow of Social Innovation at MaRS, encourages social entrepreneurs to “work for government, nonprofits and the private sector to be able to translate among the different industry ‘languages’ and work toward common goals and solutions.”

Listen More – One of the blind spots that many social entrepreneurs have is certainty. You need to believe in your idea, but as I tell my students, Fall in love with the problem, not the solution.” Betsy Densmore shares the same sentiment: “I would listen more and be less certain that I knew best.” Carla Javits agrees and adds, “Don’t be afraid to change your mind.”

Celebrate the Small & Big Successes – While most of the case studies in the classroom are examples of big success, Rolfe Larson reminds us that the “most meaningful change often happens in small accomplishments never noticed by the media.” He encourages social entrepreneurs to celebrate all successes – big and small.

Don’t Quit – The secret to a successful career as a social entrepreneur is persistence and pivoting. As Jerr Boschee of The Institute for Social Entrepreneurs is famous for saying, “Don’t quit until the miracle happens.” And, as Allyson Hewitt proposes, “When you hear the inevitable ‘no’ from an investor or the market, ask for feedback and keep evolving your message.”

Whether you’re a rising social entrepreneur just starting out, a Gen Xer looking for inspiration or a baby boomer seeking a second act as a changemaker, we hope that these pearls of wisdom will inspire you to work smarter toward driving change in your community. And, don’t let the inspiration end here. Share your wisdom or that of your personal social sector mentors here so that we may all benefit.

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