On becoming a social entrepreneur

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I had never heard of “social entrepreneurs” before I became one.Now that I am one full-time (albeit, unpaid) I'm forced to wrestle with what it means and whether I want to be one. I don't especially love being "the granola guy," but granola tycoon? Now that sounds a little more catchy.

A few random thoughts:

I—International Institute.Two student volunteers got involved when I worked there.Both from the same local college, both designing projects related to their coursework, both tremendously gifted; both genuinely seeming to care about investing their energy in something that might empower refugees.(Both took a lot of my time.)One eventually led the photography class she had designed and enabled a group of refugees—none of whom spoke English—a powerfully moving way to communicate their perspectives on their experience South Providence.The other—he was redesigning our use of space to help us be more effective in our work with the kids—apparently made a public presentation on his work. I looked it up on Facebook.I’m sure he got an A in the class.But I never heard from him again.

II—Brown.A few weeks ago, I attended an event where aspiring social entrepreneurs pitched their ventures with three minute elevator speeches.The atmosphere was an interesting mix of MBA carnival cruise with church-basement earnestness:small mountains of cheese, nice coffee, a bar, high-heeled technical assistants advising attendees on their Twitter accounts; presenters discussing disease, dying children, mosquito nets, and water purification.I’m a sucker for this kind of thing.The presenters did a nice job and the cheese was excellent.Plus I tend to think that without youthful idealism a lot of innovation never happens.It’s old farts (like me?) who tend to believe the lie that nothing can ever change.

Still, I left asking the same question I asked about the two students:how much does it matter whether a socially minded venture is intended for impact or for self-promotion?If one out of 15 actually reaches the stage of implementation, then it’s probably worth it.But what if an endeavor to nourish dying Somalian children is, in reality, a tactic to get accepted in a top-notch MBA program?What is lost?Does it matter?

III—Providence Granola Project.Bringing this closer to home—I find the overlap between mission and marketing disorienting. Certain rules apply at a farmer’s market:If I engage someone in conversation, they are twice as likely to buy our granola.(Or, I like to think, more likely to taste the granola and then buy it.)If, in the process of them tasting, I have the chance to tell them a bit about our mission, the odds of them buying double again.I assume this is a good thing.It represents an eagerness of customers for their daily purchasing choices to positively impact their world.Nevertheless, I sometimes feel self-conscious when I’m standing right next to Zaid, one of the refugees we employ, and I’m telling a stranger how we help refugees.I wonder if he feels like I am using his problems simply to market a product.

I asked Zaid about this.He was gracious.He said,“I am a refugee.That’s what I am.”I took this to mean that we are both dealing in realities.He’s not ashamed of what he is.And he knows his job is dependent on granola sales.Zaid is a great guy and we are pressing on in this together.

IV: Henrietta Lacks.One of the books that my wife was (unsuccessfully) bribing our teenage daughters to read this summer was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.The shocker of the book is that one of the ultimately worthy aspirations of modern medical research—to understand and conquer cancer—has been dependent on one woman’s cells; yet her family never gained a penny from their contribution.Billion-dollar medical businesses and perhaps billions of grant dollars were funded out of a woman’s cells, yet that woman’s family doesn’t even have health insurance.It’s a good book.It doesn’t talk about evil people or evil corporations—just distracted, myopic ones that, over many decades of pursuing the common good, never noticed the human beings behind their immortal golden cells.

Social entrepreneurs sometimes talk about a triple bottom line:(profit, people, environment). Perhaps the back side of social entrepreneurship is the potential contribution to a triple abuse of those we are trying to help, namely:

a) the original trouble they are in;

b) the oppression that comes from one person helping another (which, as I see it, is just a fact of being anyone’s benefactor.Helping another person places them in a position of the receiver, which threatens to disempower them).

c) that in the process of trying to build a business that serves suffering people we end up primarily (or exclusively) helping ourselves.

The first, of course, is just a fact.And there are ways—primarily through respect and embracing partnership or vulnerability or honesty—that can cut through the pain of being someone’s benefactee.The third could hold a particularly poignant pain for people in great need.What if someone got rich (or got their PhD, or an A in a class, or wrote their novel, or built their career) on the back of my pain and I gained nothing from it?

I haven’t heard of a code of ethics for social entrepreneurs, but if there was one, a first simple tenet could be that marketing based on human suffering needs to genuinely benefit the people suffering.

Marketing is tricky business.This week I met Ben, the owner of Abyssinia, an Ethiopian-Eritrean restaurant on Wickenden Street.We have a lot in common in that we’re both actively hiring refugees, which introduces hidden costs (primarily in training and efficiency) into our business plans.Yet we’re both captivated by the tremendous capacity for good that business has.Even a tiny business.Just giving someone a job in this economic environment is itself a big thing.In Ben’s case, the jobs he provides also help promote, honor, and stabilize a nascent community in Providence, while enriching the culinary wealth of our city.Together we marveled how simply paying his cooks means that a quarter of those paychecks are, probably within the week, entering the hands of people who are deeply affected by the famine in the horn of Africa. Talk about an economy of good!Most contributions to non-profits doing famine-assistance require a significant overhead for operations.Even so, there are huge mysteries about the long-term effectiveness of that kind of aid.Yet, when money passes through newly arrived refugee hands to their overseas families enduring a famine, there is pressure on every penny to have the greatest impact at greatest possible speed. Who would imagine that ordering the vegetarian special for lunch on Wickenden Street might be a less roundabout way to impact suffering than a donation to Oxfam?

Unlike Providence Granola, Abyssinia does not market by talking about refugees—so in that sense, what distinguishes me as a social entrepreneur is precisely the intentional marketing.That may sound cynical—but I’m not against marketing. I like knowing the impact of what I’m buying.(And I’m excited to promote Abyssinia).

All this may just be another way of saying it’s a jungle out there and students, businesses, scientists, authors, eaters—all of us have opportunities to make a positive impact in the choices we make.

This blog takes comments—so please feel free to weigh in.What do you think?

While you’re at it (here's my shameless marketing) don’t forget to buy some granola and stop in at Abyssinia.

Keith (the future granola tycoon)