Work anniversaries are special milestones – they are a time of celebration, gratitude and reflection. In February, I celebrated my 10th anniversary as Founder and CEO of Social Impact Architects. But more importantly, I celebrated a decade as a social entrepreneur. To me, it wasn’t as much of a work anniversary, but rather a “purpose” anniversary. It commemorated the moment I decided to strike out on my own to pursue my calling as a social entrepreneur – in the way I knew best – by creating a social change agency that turned the tables on social sector consulting. Since 2009, I have also added learning to the equation and, with the help of a great team, spun off another company, Changemaker Interactive.
It seems like yesterday. But the hustle and bustle of challenging assignments and provocative community work has swept morning into night and weeks into years. Now, 10 years later, I’m older and wiser, but I still get excited to take on every new project.
I recently got to sit down with fellow social entrepreneur and marketing guru Cassi Lowe, of Be Good / Good Press, to talk about my journey. She recently started Good Press to “shine a spotlight on businesses that make an impact,” and I’m honored to be one of her first interviews. Please feel free to read the interview via Medium. Or, alternatively, read on for abridged highlights from our conversation:
What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far on your journey as a social entrepreneur?
I’ve learned we must be risk-takers and truth-tellers. We’ve got to take great risks in the social space to create change, which sometimes means that we have to shake up the existing system. There are uncomfortable moments associated with that, but there’s a great return associated with it, too. As a risk-taker and a truth-teller, I’m the person that asks why the system is built the way it is and whether or not we have to accept it.
With all the seismic shifts that are happening in the world, some of the older models in the social sector have become outdated. People are different. Technology has changed the way we live and work. So, I have to be a truth-teller and a risk-taker to help move the sector forward. I would say my biggest lesson learned is that those are very important roles to play in a community. And, I’ve learned that to play those roles you must be issue-agnostic — my only loyalty is to the community.
What advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs?
My advice to aspiring social entrepreneurs is to learn the essence of who we really are and why we exist.
There are some fundamental principles of how social entrepreneurs see the world differently. It doesn’t make you a social entrepreneur just because you’re trying to create social good and you’re doing it an entrepreneurial way. I would encourage people who are or want to be social entrepreneurs to read the origin story of our philosophy and understand that it is a discipline you must practice every single day.
Can you go a little bit deeper into that idea?
The original social entrepreneurs started with the idea that the charitable model is broken, and it’s broken for several reasons. First, it disempowers people. Essentially, it creates a culture of dependency – when you give a man a fish, he keeps needing fish. When we talk about the man, though, we’re not just talking about the individuals we serve. We’re also talking about nonprofits. Unfortunately, nonprofits are often chasing the money instead of chasing the mission. The system we have created has led to these and many other issues. To combat this, social entrepreneurs wanted to harness the entire marketplace to create change — that includes nonprofits acting more entrepreneurial, and for-profits acting more social. From that effort came people like me who believed in market-based solutions and started hybrid corporations, such as B Corporations.
Another reason is that in the beginning, we assumed that social entrepreneurship was similar to traditional entrepreneurship, meaning that you could only be a social entrepreneur if you started something. That led to a lot of new nonprofits and businesses, which defeated the purpose of market-based solutions. Because if you continue to create competition, the system becomes so complex that it is harder to work together toward the greater good.
To that end, one of the things I’ve been really pushing is the idea that people interested in social entrepreneurship should become social intrapreneurs first. Intrapreneurs work for existing organizations – public entities or existing nonprofits – and practice social entrepreneurship within those organizations. In my experience, it is much easier to work within an existing system and change it for the better than to start your own business.
The final thing I would say to aspiring social entrepreneurs is that they need to understand our ethos. Social entrepreneurs never seek credit or limelight. It’s about the community winning. We also believe that multiple viewpoints are more important than any single perspective. We believe in co-creating solutions alongside whomever we’re serving, so we don’t come in, in a paternalistic way, and say, “I think this is what you need.” We’re there walking alongside the people we’re serving, being among them, and unlocking doors for individuals in need, rather than creating a cycle of dependency.
Finally, and I think this is the hardest to understand, everything is interrelated and there are no silver bullets. You can’t get a good education if you have asthma and you have to stay home from school multiple days a month. It’s hard to get a job, particularly a living-wage job, if you have a criminal record. All these issues have become their own industries – criminal justice, education, health, poverty, workforce – and are treated like they exist in isolation, when in reality, for the people that we’re serving, everything is closely connected.
Social entrepreneurship is the ethos of putting the community above all other things and recognizing that no one person has the solution. The best solutions come from the bottom up, and there should be no intellectual property associated with them. It’s a very utopian view of social change in many ways.
What action would you want readers to take?
Watch my TEDx Talk called, “Everyone Can Be a Changemaker.” I put some very specific action steps of how you can be a changemaker, no matter your circumstances.
Then, you can dig deeper into a life strategy that is about service and creating change, whether it’s on your block, in your community, in the world, or in your own life. I hope that will spur a series of actions that are unique to your gifts and skill sets as you improve your life and the lives of those you love.
We hope you enjoyed the snippets from our most recent interview – we also have a podcast for you to listen to this summer. We welcome you to read the entire interview and share your thoughts – we are all on this journey together!