“Born Again” Into Social Enterprise

Sep 10 2010 Published by under Social Enterprise

I like social enterprise.

I really like social enterprise.

What is social enterprise?

I guess I don’t really know (that’s part of what this whole blog/road-to-discovery is about), but I would like to share with you why I’m interested.

A SEED WAS PLANTED

I’ve been aware of microbusiness for about 10 years now. My first exposure to the term was while taking a beginning accounting course from Norm Nemrow as an undergrad at Brigham Young University. I remember him sharing that he’d had some experience with microbusiness, but I especially remember perking up when he mentioned that he thought microbusiness had the potential for doing more good for poverty than any other model. That was it. I heard the term, I perked up at the idea, and then I moved on to various other stories and successes for the next 8-9 years.

(It occurs to me that one might need to be very cautious about how casually they throw out time periods like “8-9″ years. That’s almost a third of my life. But I digress.)

FAILURE

I had some failures.

First, the financial sales career (is it a career if you’ve only been working it for 5 years?) I’d been working in fell apart miserably and the company that I worked for shut its doors. Second, I had invested heavily into some real estate and mortgage related ventures, and those all went underwater when the market turned poorly in the end of 2008. After a very short time, I had no assets, some very significant debts, and I was without my significant income to provide some semblance of safety. The point is that I found myself at a point in my life where I was feeling vulnerable and therefore more sensitive to others’ vulnerability.

REDISCOVERY

In the latter half of 2009, still trying to rebuild my finances, I ran into a list on Forbes.com of some of the most influential business thinkers in the world. I’ve always been a sucker for those kinds of heavily summarized but easily digested lists, so I allowed myself a quick look through. The list was viewed as a slide-show from least influential to most. A couple of the names were easily recognizable from business rock star Richard Branson to technology godfathers Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to one of my favorite economists Paul Krugman and even another name that I quickly recognized in Malcolm Gladwell. I also noted a couple other names on the list that had some interesting points about them that I thought I would follow up on. However, I admit to becoming a bit distracted when I ran into a slide of a man named Muhammad Yunus who was captioned as being a champion of microcredit.

There was that term again.

Whoa. I remembered that. I didn’t even make it to the next slide for a while. I quickly opened up a couple new tabs in my browser, and I learned about the fascinating work that Yunus had done in lending to small groups of people (primarily women) in small villages and in developing Grameen bank. From a methodological standpoint I was fascinated by his work. I worked in the lending industry for years, and what he was doing really was very unique and, from the perspective of the average bank, very difficult. From a purely humanitarian standpoint, I was deeply touched. I was at a point in my own life where I had gone from a position of being in significant financial control to suddenly having a “bagful of mistakes” (even if they weren’t all my own) and feeling vulnerable. Whether it would do the same for somebody else or not doesn’t really matter, because this time, reading about Yunus’ work and the impact it was making on so many who really were very vulnerable and dependent resonated deeply with me.

But I wasn’t done. I hadn’t finished the list yet.

SEALING MY FATE

I didn’t know it at the time, but the next 5 minutes were about to completely change me. If there’s such a thing as being “born again” in the business world, it was about to happen to me.

I went through a few more slides, some of which I’ve already named, and nodded my head at some of the recognized names. I then clicked the arrow that took me to the last slide – the most influential thinker according to this list. The man listed was C.K. Prahalad, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. I’d never heard his name. I didn’t recognize him. I had just seen Steve Jobs, Paul Krugman, and Malcolm Gladwell. Who’s C.K Prahalad? The following is the direct quote of Forbes.com’s caption for C.K. Prahalad:

“C.K. Prahalad’s influence on the business world is immense,” says Des Dearlove, co-creator of the global ranking with Stuart Crainer. “He coined the term ‘core competencies’ in the 1990s, which set the strategy agenda for a generation of managers. More recently, his work on The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid has shown the role business can play in tackling world poverty.”

from Forbes.com

note: It turns out that the list I was viewing on Forbes.com was really a clipping of a list from Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove’s The Thinkers 50 list for 2009. You can find the full list here in www.thinkers50.com.

What struck me was the last line regarding the “role business can play in tackling world poverty.” First, it hit my taking-care-of-the-vulnerable-person bone again. Second, the number-one person on this list from a publication that I respected was the second person, previously unknown to me, that was referenced for the difference they were making with poverty. What was I missing? Third, and finally, the idea that business was the means to alleviating poverty resonated immediately with me as a sustainable solution (although I admit I didn’t think of it in those terms).

I had to know more.

Following that rather brief but very moving experience, I quickly went to Amazon.com, found The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid and ordered myself a copy. I’ll explain more in future posts about why this book ended up being so important to me, but the gist of it is that this was really just the beginning of the story for me. I spent hours upon hours afterward looking up more information on Yunus and Prahalad and their work. I quickly learned about the work that Kiva was doing with microlending and the social venture work over at Acumen Fund. I couldn’t get enough of the subject of social enterprise, and I started telling lots of family and friends about it. I learned from talking to a couple friends who were already involved, one who had just finished an internship with Kiva, that there were opportunities to get involved here in Utah, where I live.

Now I want to do more.

That was about one year ago that I discovered Muhammad Yunus and C.K. Prahalad. I’ve learned volumes more about the subject, and it’s getting more and more clear to me that I still have only scratched the surface of what had already been happening for years as well as the dramatic changes that are happening in social enterprise at this time. I’m still not sure what role I’m going to play in the space. If all I get to be is an excited voice on the subject – fine. But I would like to do more, and I’m determined to find where my interests for business development and connecting sustainable business models with the most developing parts of our world (also the vast majority of our world) meet the social enterprise space.

See you there?

See you there.

note: C.K. Prahalad passed away earlier this year. For any interested the Harvard Business Review has a special page dedicated to his remembrance at their website.

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