Advice for Social Entrepreneurs

By a 2017 Groundswell's Social Ventures cohort member

Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_Einstein_Murals_on_the_Promenade,_Sheringham,_29_February_2016.JPG

Photo credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albert_Einstein_Murals_on_the_Promenade,_Sheringham,_29_February_2016.JPG

Resting at home this week with a mug of soothing coffee I glanced through a British newspaper and read that Albert Einstein was traveling in Japan in 1922 when he was told he would be awarded the Nobel Prize for physics. In Tokyo, Einstein scribbled a note in German to a bellboy after he did not have cash to give him a tip.  This note fetched $1.3m at an auction in Jerusalem last month, October 2017. It read:

“A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.”

Another note that Einstein gave the bellboy read Where there’s a will there’s a way,” was sold for over $200,000.

Enthused by these two quotations, I looked up other Einstein sayings:

“Without creative, independently thinking and judging personalities the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the individual personality without the nourishing soil of the community.”

“A man's value to the community primarily depends on how far his feelings, thoughts, and actions are directed towards promoting the good of his fellows.”

These four statements rang true and reminded me of my recent classes on social impact. While flicking through my handwritten notes from Groundswell’s social venture incubator I reflected on Einstein’s principles and my notes were drawn together in a moment of clarity. 

Before I elaborate, a quick story:

There was a man touted as a high flier. He harbored the ambition of a towering career and resolutely set personal goals every 6 months. One day he contracted a serious life-threatening illness. The goals were ripped up and thrown away. He joined a company, was mentored poorly and lost confidence and left. Life threw a spanner in the works when the man tried to force the situation using a perfect, no risk plan.

The man chanced upon a job posting and moved to a new company. There he found his footing, regained confidence and led community outreaches in his spare time. After 10 years and feeling refreshed and ready, he moved abroad for work and experienced the most stressful situation. His two bosses were unceremoniously fired on the front pages of the news and he needed to defend against termination of his company, otherwise face further public disgrace and internal consequences. He kept calm, worked hard and smart with supportive colleagues and nullified the attacks. The company survived. The circumstances were beyond his control but he made better decisions and embraced changes from a place of calm and rest and with his community.

But the man was still dissatisfied with the restlessness of the corporate world despite being offered a top position and much more pay. So he quit his job and did not look back.

That man was me.

In September 2017 I joined Groundswell and found another place of rest and adventure as I build my social venture with another supportive community.  But will my venture be overcome by the overwhelming risks?

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/home_of_chaos/4900155977

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/home_of_chaos/4900155977

It is widely known that most startups fail within 24 months. With these stats, why would anyone try?  I hear that many startups fail from lack of cash, bad management, business model and market fit, bad luck. But are these reasons the only ones?  How about the motivations to start the organisation in the first place? Were they noble? Or posturing? What is success?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. But what I do know is that I am the most energised and fulfilled than I’ve been for over ten years. There is hard work ahead of me - that is a fact but hard work should never be the reason to stop. Do I have what it takes?

From my experiences, potential and talent has never been enough. A plan is just a plan without good execution. Attitude trumps skill. Skill trumps experience. Often times, talent plus skill plus grit yields results. But I also know that very often people thrive in places where they feel completely ill-equipped and unqualified. I’m definitely one of those people. There are times in my career where I should have faced the hard truth that I was suffocating like a fish swimming through air and I could have stopped. Rather, I adapted to the circumstances and solved problems that really benefitted users.

Perhaps an organisation’s grit comes from seeing your organisation’s impact on one person, then one neighborhood and in society. As we have all experienced, sometimes blessings arrive at the same time and doors mysteriously open. Sometimes all the doors shut and re-open later on. Maybe not. Sometimes judging by numbers do not foretell a company’s success. Just as the bottom line shows net profit but ignores the human cost, people’s welfare, social, resource and environmental impact.

With Groundswell, I’ve absorbed the lean methodology with detailed consideration of purpose and values, taking responsibility for social, cultural and environmental impacts using alternative ways of thinking for the transformation of society.  I believe that before starting any social venture, it is worth asking yourself the following questions in the cold light of day:

Where does your dream come from - while resting or from striving?

Are you solving anything with unselfish motives or causing negative side effects?

Do you have the grit to see it through?

Do you really care about the welfare of the community or is it solely to make money?

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulisson_miura/23016554119

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paulisson_miura/23016554119

To live a fulfilled life as a social entrepreneur, consider Einstein’s thoughts and start the process from a place of calm and modesty as your heart wrestles with injustice (rest / compassion); find a way (passion); think of creative solutions with trusted counsellors (action); promote the good of the community (mission).

Compassion - find your purpose with a calm head

●     does your heart feel a lingering burden for this situation to change?

●     what is the purpose of your organisation? (i.e. don’t strive to find a solution)

●     do you understand the context in terms of social, cultural, resource, material, economic considerations?

●     Who are the inputs and the target market?

●     Should you be using the capitalism / neo-liberalism narrative? (i.e. solve problems, don’t create new ones).

Passion - find different ways to achieve your purpose, how will you implement your purpose?

●     how do you get to your idea which uses your talents and values?

●     as you develop your plans, can you take inspiration from nature’s pathways, ecosystems and permaculture to find new methods to achieve the purpose?

Action - innovate and create a new solution

●     entrepreneurship is a muscle rather than an art.  Are you exercising?

●     are you being disciplined and taking steps to improve and iterate?

●     have you validated the product market fit? Outputs and outcomes?

●     are you seeking counsel from mentors and advisors?

●     are you listening to insights from your community of support?

Mission - deliver results to impact society positively

●     how are you measuring the benefit to society? Keep the main purpose the main thing without straying away.

This is something for each person to discover and turn a dream into a reality.

I look forward to the next steps in my life as a social entrepreneur and I hope you do too.