Breaking Through Social Entrepreneurship’s Star System

Social entrepreneurship has been always both a gift and curse for me, a Millennial in the social change sector. Echoing Green's Lara Galinsky was right in her HBR piece: "Not Everyone Should Be a Social Entrepreneur". In recent years, amazing programs like hers (Echoing Green provides seed funding and technical assistance to emerging social entrepreneurs) have made social entrepreneurs the entrepreneurship sector's new "it kids." And that elevation, while arguably warranted, is not without its dangers. Like Galinsky, I worry that many in my generation have taken to a trendy career option to the detriment of other roles that may not be as "sexy" or command as many magazine covers, but are critical for long-term social impact.

But I have other concerns. I worry that with the promotion of stars, one begins to see a star profile emerge; a narrative that dictates what a social entrepreneur looks like and what experiences will lead to success.

My own experience helping launch a program within an larger enterprise and counseling scores of young leaders around the world has allowed me the opportunity to look at social entrepreneurship from many sides and take away some valuable lessons, proving that there is no one single path that's best or more deserving of "star" status.

At the age of 25, working with a colleague, I started a first of its kind, million-dollar program on demographics and equity inside the nation's largest progressive think tank, the Center for American Progress. It was what Galinsky called "being entrepreneurial" at its best... and scariest. We, two young, wholly inexperienced co-founders were responsible for program design, fundraising, branding, promotion and execution of this effort.

It was an exercise in entrepreneurship within the cocoon of a larger institution that provided both an invaluable safety net (benefits, overhead, tech, a network of support, immediate credibility) and a host of added pressures (the expectation for rapid return on investment, the challenge of premature collaboration, the bureaucracy of decision making, etc.). It was unbelievably challenging but gave us an opportunity to test our approach without the fear of independent financial ruin. It was here that I learned my first lesson.

That first lesson is that being entrepreneurial within an organization can be just as hard and just as worthwhile as external, independent entrepreneurship. It may be without the corresponding public glory and it's not what one typically associates with a social "star," but it isn't without its impact.

Looking at the program that is now thriving and growing, I am so proud. The experience of that launch taught me a great deal of invaluable skills, such as collaborating within a larger organization, maneuvering bureaucracy, etc. Armed with these new skills, I wanted to help nurture new leaders that didn't fit the expected social entrepreneurship profile (white, male, independently well resourced, etc.) so I joined a social start-up accelerator. There I saw what it looked like for the perfect mix of timing, initiative, experience and idea to coalesce into a powerful enterprise, helmed by the right entrepreneur.

I now run my own independent venture, Foolish Life Ventures, an organization that works with individuals, organizations and brands to unlock the power for social change in modern, authentic, and culturally relevant ways. I didn't start it because I wanted praise. Or because someone told me I should. Or just because I could. It was a combination of factors and answers to a series of probing questions about myself and my work. Questions like "Is this an approach that no one else sees the value in yet? Where can I serve the greatest number of people in the way that I believe they should be served? What type of environment and resources would cause this work to thrive? Do I know what I need to know — or am I driven enough by this project to learn quickly?" For me, the answers pointed clearly in one direction and taught me the most valuable lesson of all.

You see, social entrepreneurship is not about what you can do or who you are, but rather, what you are uniquely positioned and want to do happening at the right time. One can be talented and entrepreneurial but not in the right environment or have the right idea. Similarly, someone with the right idea, drive and support can do amazing things, without the necessary level of pre-existing skill sets.

All of my experiences have allowed me to witness firsthand the dilemma that many bright young leaders wrestle with: Is social entrepreneurship the right path for me? Some Millennials have turned to entrepreneurship as a result of the unforgiving job market. Others after working within institutions that were resistant to change. And others, simply because it was their divine purpose and timing. There is no single route that guarantees success or predicts your social entrepreneurship level of "stardom."

Which is why I echo Galinsky in cautioning our generation against rushing into a career as a social entrepreneur. But just as important a caution is the one I give to those in positions of power in this social entrepreneurship movement: Be careful in your definition of entrepreneurial leadership. The path to innovation in the social sector is a tricky one.

Let's do the next generation a favor by continuing to elevate a diversity of social entrepreneurship stories, profiles, principles, and lessons and not default to the stories that appear on our magazine covers or have already reached a star status within the field. This diversity can help show young visionaries that there are many possible paths to bringing about social change.

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