Social Enterpreneurs Say “Business” Not Compatible With Our Values

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

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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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