Social Enterpreneurs Say “Business” Not Compatible With Our Values

Written by on September 18, 2009 in Entrepreneurship, Featured, University - 9 Comments

danger_opportunity_crisis

Last night I had the good fortune of attending a “Summit on Leading in Crisis” at the University of Minnesota facilitated by Bill George.  George, former CEO of Medtronic cum Harvard Business School professor, brought together four of the nation’s more admirable leaders and thinkers to provide their stories, reflections and lessons on leading in crisis.

Here was the lineup:

  • Anne Mulcahy  – Chair and former CEO, Xerox
  • David Gergen –  CNN commentator and Director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard’s Kennedy School
  • Marilyn Carlson Nelson – Chair and former CEO, Carlson Companies
  • John Donahoe – CEO, eBay

The discussion created much food for thought and a couple of points I found particularly poignant for social enterprise.

George began the panel discussion speaking, in part, to the failure of leadership that is largely responsible, in his estimation, for the current crisis.  Not so much sub-prime mortgages as “sub-prime leadership,” he said, was behind the our debacle.

While all the panelists remarked on George’s witty comment, Marilyn Carlson Nelson politely called foul.  With the exception of a few bad apples, she opined that most corporate leaders have acted admirably during this crisis.  Moreover, she warned that placing blame for the crisis on corporate leadership risks sending the message to our young people that “business is not compatible with their values.”  This despite the fact that “job creation is the best form of philanthropy.”

The apparent tie-in to social entrepreneurship is no mistake. In fact, Carlson Nelson later remarked on her enthusiams for social entrepreneurs who are finding market solutions to our world’s biggest problems.

But what to make of her comments?  In my travels, social entrepreneurs have seemed to be primarily made up of disillusioned aid workers and non-profit veterans.  Are we seeing now a new class of social enterprise aficionados made up of former corporate stiffs (it takes one to know one)?  Is the current crisis driving more young for-profit leaders into the social enterprise sector? And if job creation really is the best form of philanthropy, what of our debate around “social” vs. “traditional” enterprise?

Along similar lines, Carlson Nelson went on to say, during a discussion on innovation and entrepreneurship in the United States, “our future lies somewhere between greed and ambition.”  What of that?

My take is that Carlson Nelson got it about 90% right.  Job creation may or may not be the “best form of philanthropy,” but it is the path to development and poverty allevation.  And that path must be paved by enterprising individuals who are motivated by some combination of greed, ambition, and, I would add, selflessness or enlightened self-interest.   Adam Smith, somewhere between “The Wealth of Nations” and his “Theory of Moral Sentiments” said pretty much the same thing.  Nowadays, when the entrepreneurial motivator is primarily selfessness and secondarily greed and ambition, we call these social entrepreneurs.  In my opinion, the more of these, the better off we’ll all be.

So, unlike Carlson Nelson, I don’t lament the flight of young leaders to the social sector.  It may not be that “business” is incompatible with our values.  I’d say that it is absolutely not.  But it could be that the unchecked greed of those who got our world into this mess will become a driving force behind the future good work that will lead to a stronger and more just world.

Mike Shoemaker

Mike is a graduate of St. Olaf College in Minnesota and a former Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogota, Colombia. Mike currently manages strategic alliances for a global consulting firm, is a volunteer and advisor to The Ayllu Initiative, and blogs at Human Ventures.

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  • http://kevinasuncion.com Kevin Asuncion

    I agree with a lot of the points you present here Mike. In my experience a lot of my friends who were laid off even moved into the non-profit, public sector, as well as began to volunteer, not so much out of necessity, but because they had an epiphany of sorts. I’ve also seen a lot of young people who are more interested in doing a job where economic value isn’t the primary motivator. Just a few years ago, college grads had to make a mutually exclusive choice, to do good, or to do good for oneself, and often I’d see many choosing the latter, I myself did so as well. But the past few years I’ve seen a rise in interest in civic service, more people are interested in not only doing well for themselves but doing good for others. Hopefully this signifies a cultural shift towards altruism, and not so much a trend that’ll disappear in a couple of years.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/jcpbacon Justin Bacon

    Nice write-up, Mike. I was also fortunate enough to be able to attend the summit on leadership in crisis at the U of MN last night. It was a great event and there were many highlights for me, some of which you describe. One of the best part of the evening for me however was meeting other attendees (and the panelists!) after the discussion wrapped up – in fact I found myself marveling at the fact that the bulk of the audience cleared out immediately after the Q & A.

    Yes, there’s a tie-in to your post. One of the people I had the opportunity to meet is a long-time social entrepreneur who founded a global nurse scholarship/training program at the turn of the century. Wow, sounds like a long time ago, doesn’t it?! One of the comments he made to me about his social venture experience over the years was the challenges he’s had in positioning his work, because on the one-hand traditional businesses wrote him off as a glorified 501c while non-profits gave him a bad rap for trying to develop a business model that would both turn a profit but that also aimed to affect positive social change (sociocultural/sociopolitical.)

    While the term “social entrepreneurism” has been around for decades, maybe the current crisis is the perfect storm that will give rise to a societal sea change, with a larger then ever group of social entrepreneurs and leaders emerging. Such a sea change was alluded to numerous times during the panelists’ remarks, referring to the “crucible generation” and the great opportunities that come along with great adversity. Others, such as Warren Bennis, have said this much more eloquently than me, proclaiming (and I paraphrase) a “generation of the crucible whereby the current adversity is forging a new Greatest Generation.” Read the full piece, here: http://bit.ly/j4Cm

    Thanks again for the post Mike. Great to see some post-event digestion/discussion. The summit on leadership last night was too amazing to come and go merely as a social-hour see-and-be-seen event.

    Thanks,

    Justin B.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Justin-Pruszynski-Bacon/1123131846 Justin Pruszynski Bacon

    Nice write-up, Mike. I was also fortunate enough to be able to attend the summit on leadership in crisis at the U of MN last night. It was a great event and there were many highlights for me, some of which you describe. One of the best part of the evening for me however was meeting other attendees (and the panelists!) after the discussion wrapped up – in fact I found myself marveling at the fact that the bulk of the audience cleared out immediately after the Q & A.

    Yes, there’s a tie-in to your post. One of the people I had the opportunity to meet is a long-time social entrepreneur who founded a global nurse scholarship/training program at the turn of the century. Wow, sounds like a long time ago, doesn’t it?! One of the comments he made to me about his social venture experience over the years was the challenges he’s had in positioning his work, because on the one-hand traditional businesses wrote him off as a glorified 501c while non-profits gave him a bad rap for trying to develop a business model that would both turn a profit but that also aimed to affect positive social change (sociocultural/sociopolitical.)

    While the term “social entrepreneurism” has been around for decades, maybe the current crisis is the perfect storm that will give rise to a societal sea change, with a larger then ever group of social entrepreneurs and leaders emerging. Such a sea change was alluded to numerous times during the panelists’ remarks, referring to the “crucible generation” and the great opportunities that come along with great adversity. Others, such as Warren Bennis, have said this much more eloquently than me, proclaiming (and I paraphrase) a “generation of the crucible whereby the current adversity is forging a new Greatest Generation.” Read the full piece, here: http://bit.ly/j4Cm

    Thanks again for the post Mike. Great to see some post-event digestion/discussion. The summit on leadership last night was too amazing to come and go merely as a social-hour see-and-be-seen event.

    Thanks,

    Justin B.

  • http://twitter.com/zacksteven Zack Steven

    Thanks for an insightful post and comments. I wish I could have attended the event last night. As a co-founder of http://www.buythechange.com (a hyperlocal classifieds site that gives up to 50% back to non-profits) I’ve long identified with social entrepreneurs. But as I’ve taken a closer look at the sector, I’ve run into a number of the complexities that you’ve identified.

    In the way that people feel uncomfortable when they don’t know a person’s gender (ala Pat on SNL) they also are uncomfortable when they can’t fit your business into a box. Are you for-profit or not? The middle ground of “fair-profit” social enterprises can be confusing to customers, investors and potential non-profit partners. For instance, I was baffled to learn that as a corporation we couldn’t participate in the Social Entrepreneurs Cup, sponsored by Social Venture Partners. Social enterprises should be measured by their social impact, not their legal structure.

    I believe that changing how “business” is done the greatest and most sustainable opportunity for social change. Thanks for furthering the conversation.

    Zack

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  • JeffMowatt

    Mike, There's a widely held perception that social enterprise began as nonprofit and for profit variants have developed since to intrude on the territory. The case for business with a primary social objective, that I've referred to in another response is presented in a “manifesto” which argues that wealth should be expressed in human benefit rather than debt based on abstract numbers.

    http://www.p-ced.com/about/background/

    It resurfaces as a concept, without the principles 12 years later at Davos 2008

    http://www.p-ced.com/info/se/

    Jeff

  • JeffMowatt

    Mike, There's a widely held perception that social enterprise began as nonprofit and for profit variants have developed since to intrude on the territory. The case for business with a primary social objective, that I've referred to in another response is presented in a “manifesto” which argues that wealth should be expressed in human benefit rather than debt based on abstract numbers.

    http://www.p-ced.com/about/background/

    It resurfaces as a concept, without the principles 12 years later at Davos 2008

    http://www.p-ced.com/info/se/

    Jeff

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