by Lauren Beversluis
The world, or a fragment of it, certainly came together this Tuesday night at The Grove, a work and social space for entrepreneurs a few blocks from Old Campus. Gathered for a social entrepreneurship discussion were World Fellows Sisonke Msimang, Ayush Chauhan, Patrick Struebi, Ruchi Yadav and Amine Belaicha, and roughly twenty other people in attendance, myself included. The Grove member—also Msimang’s husband—opened the discussion. He began by introducing the meeting as an opportunity for everyone to share stories of their experiences and issues with social entrepreneurship. It was casual gathering, enhanced by drinks, pretzels, and chips, and rife with lively conversation.
Each of us around the table introduced ourselves. We were a mixture of students, teachers, hockey players, businesspeople, vegans, writers, and organizers from around the U.S. and the world. (I happened to be the only undergrad in attendance, quietly sipping my apple juice among vociferous wine and beer sippers.) We were united, however, in our interest in what it means to be a social entrepreneur.
Sisonke Msimang, as the executive director of Open Society Initiative in South Africa, has worked for various UN agencies regarding HIV/AIDS and women’s rights. A confident and sociable leader, she jokingly called herself “Oprah with a headwrap” as she mediated the discussion. She first presented two extreme groups on either side of the societal spectrum: the do-gooders and the moneymakers, each wholly independent of the other. Traditionally, the two groups have been fairly distinct. The shift now towards social entrepreneurship is the bringing of these two extremes together. The debate over how this could and should be done was the common theme throughout the conversation.
Patrick Struebi then told us his intriguing story. From Switzerland, he had started out as a business consultant for a commodity trading company, working on multi-million-dollar projects and living in airports and hotels. With his background, he was trained to be good at his job and to make copious amounts of money. He loved his job; he learned a lot from it. But then at 34 years old working with mining company in Peru, he was struck the poor working conditions of the miners. He “had an epiphany”, realizing that his life’s work so far was “making the rich richer and the poor poorer”. He told us that at that point, he sold everything, moved to Mexico on sabbatical to reevaluate his life, and diversified his repertoire of activities, taking up the violin and learning handicrafts. Perhaps not a typical mid-life crisis, but a striking life-turnaround tale nonetheless. While in Mexico, Patrick realized his passion for international trading and a desire to ensure fairness. He started working to certify small-scale farmers as organic and Fair Trade, because he saw that those farmers were getting raw deals when unfair middlemen bought and sold their goods. He noted the importance of empowering farmers to be better producers over giving them money, improving yields and sustainability. This model he implemented was then brought to farmers in other countries, including Chile, Peru, Argentina, and Turkey.
Gesturing with his hands dangerously close to my face and my juice on my right, Mr. Struebi was proud declared himself to be a social entrepreneur. Gesturing similarly on my left was Ayush Chauhan, refusing that label for himself. Ayush, the head of an innovation and design consultancy in India, primarily works on the development of sanitation in urban slums. As is, public sanitation in India is a design failure as well as a systemic failure; people openly defecate outside, creating serious health issues. Unlike the widely held belief that this is just a behavioral issue, Ayush believes it to be a technical issue as well, and that both elements of the problem need attention. He questions if his business model is true social entrepreneurship because his business works for profit just like any other business. He believes that the bar for the label needs to be set higher, as anyone who happens to do any sort of social good in a business can be called a social entrepreneur.
Amine Belaicha agreed that there is difficulty in defining “social entrepreneurship”. Amine runs a private investment firm that provides development services to businesses in North Africa and the Middle East. He said that to be an entrepreneur is to be a social entrepreneur because there will always be some social impact in business. Creating jobs and hiring people creates the chain effect of better workers, better education, and a better economy. Alongside this simple truth, Amine maintains that to be a successful investor, one “needs to have a social perspective” and truly consider the social impact because “the environment requires it”. In other words, being socially savvy is part of good business.
Sometimes, however, the private sector is not the best candidate for effecting change. Simon pointed out that business models do not always have solutions to problems such as the lack of public goods that ought to be free for all. The conversation so shifted to the efficacy of nonprofits. Amine noted that both for-profit and not-for-profit or nonprofit sectors can have positive and negative social impact; it is wrong to assume that for-profits are necessarily somehow exploitative or that nonprofits are necessarily only good for the people. Ruchi Yadav, a women’s rights and campaigns activist in India, is involved in the nonprofit sector. Though she deeply cares for social welfare and invests her efforts in nonprofit, she realizes that the success and impact of nonprofits is hard to measure and evaluate. This is because nonprofits are largely self-monitored. Sisonke Msimang agreed, remarking that many times foreign aid can be given without careful regard to the type of aid needed. There can also be negative social impacts, and no one asks questions about do-gooders. According to Sisonke, though people may ask about the allocation of funds in nonprofits, people do not ask about potentially harmful practices done by nonprofits.
Shana Schneider, who worked to start the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute, made a case for the potential nonexistence of the term “social entrepreneurship”, because it is something that we should “just do without labeling”. She predicted that in perhaps in twenty years, businesses will realize that it is in their best interest along with everyone else’s to have a positive social impact.
Like Patrick Struebi with the Peruvian miners, the best strategy in business and welfare is for people at the top of the socioeconomic food chain to truly see and understand the people at the bottom. Whether this can be labeled as “social entrepreneurship” or just “good business” is still in debate.
Lauren Beversluis is a freshman in Calhoun College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.