I was wrong!

It’s not too often that you start reading an assigned textbook for a university class and come away feeling jazzed. In fact, it’s not that often that you feel jazzed about anything at all (except, in my case, with actual jazz).

But on the bus on the way home tonight, I opened up David Bornstein’s “How to Change the World“, a textbook for my class on social entrepreneurship.

Up until now, I would explain social entrepreneurship as “having a business that has positive social impacts, or a nonprofit that makes money….like the sort of thing TOMS shoes does”. To me, it was a grey area that included corporate greenwashing and T-shirts that build schools in Africa.

As it turns out, I was wrong.

How to Change the World chronicles the story of an eccentric American civil servant as he seeks to discover those he considers social entrepreneurs. Not people who take the idea of starting a business and use it for social goals, but those who have the revolutionary impetus of an entrepreneur and apply it society as a whole. Bornstein gives the example of Florence Nightingale, who, in the nineteenth century reimagined hospital administration through hours of personal attention and conversation paired with cutting edge statistical analysis (which, in the 1800s, involved using the pie chart). Her work decreased military hospital mortality by orders of magnitude. Another example is Fabio Rosa, a Brazilian whose work transcends classification; agronomist, electrician, civil servant, businessman, he gave electrical access to millions of rural Brazilians through a combination of technological innovations, political chutzpah, and dogged determination. According to Kindle, I’m only 15 percent into the book, but the stories of people pushing past massive systemic obstacles is hugely inspiring. I think they’ll be more posts to come about what I’m learning.

When I was little, I wanted to be an inventor when I grew up (after being a hermit and never growing up). I wouldn’t let my parents get rid of the recycling because I needed them for my projects. I would write down my inventions in a little notebook (I think the best one was a “bed roller coaster”). As I got older, I realised that “inventor” wasn’t really a category of job you could train for. But I think that ‘entrepreneur’ is about as close as you can get. Being a social entrepreneur is much more than “my NGO has a revenue stream”, it is about re-inventing the way that society functions in a certain arena. It involves questioning systems, coming up with new ideas, forging teams and administrating whatever happens as a result.

I’m really excited, because that appeals to me a lot.


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