Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Social Enterprise Elitism

There's a growing debate in the social enterprise world, not only about who's a social entrepreneur but about who's being left out of the club.

True, the exceptions and misconceptions abound, but the debate settles around two main points -- that unless you're a Caucasian and unless you're an MBA, it's tougher to get support for your good work trying to start a social enterprise.

Is that fair? Consider the arguments. The first point being raised by some across the sector is that MBAs seem to be preferred by social ventures and the foundations willing to fund aspiring social entrepreneurs. Employers, the argument goes, also seem to prefer MBAs, but the truth is that not everyone who can make a difference or start a social enterprise can afford business school—nor think they should have to get an MBA in order to get funding to develop their ideas. "I have no MBA nor do I want one," says Martin Montero, the founder of Austin Social Innovation Fund. Montero tweeted me the other day in response to one of my queries about a story in today's Wall Street Journal Online that cites the surge of interest by business school students in "socially-responsible money-making." The article also notes how business schools are being pushed to create a whole host of courses and study tracks to help MBA students sort out the best way to build companies that both make money and help to solve social problems. Montero and others, including a number of Justmeans community members who messaged me earlier this week, said the fuss over socially-minded MBAs tends to leave out a great deal of people who are not in business school but who already have been making a big difference in the sector. " We most definitely need more non-MBA social entrepreneurs," Montero wrote.

A second point I keep hearing is that the developing world is, more or less, being left out of the conversation. community member Gerard Ww, in a comment responding to my introductory column as social enterprise editor of Justmeans, said that "no company, organization, or individuals (seems) willing to really get their hands truly dirty side-by-side with us (those people at the bottom of the pyramid) while trying to help the BoP!" Describing himself as one of the billions at the bottom of the pyramid, he said that "we are never included in the [potential] interventions; it's always the so-called academics and 'successful' business persons who dictate terms and conditions. Too few of us will ever be helped by the continued exclusion, but who else knows the conditions [at the bottom of the pyramid] better" than the people who live there?

Gerard isn't the only person posing the question. Rod Schwartz, CEO of ClearlySo, an online marketplace that aims to raise the visibility of social businesses, sparked a lively debate earlier this year when he posed on the SocialEdge blog the following question: "Are the only innovations in social entrepreneurship Anglo-Saxon?" Schwartz had asked the same question at the 2009 Skoll World Forum, which I also attended, asking fellow conferees what they thought of the fact that a majority of the speakers and panelists were Caucasian. Ashni Mohnot, who joins me as a contributing blogger at PopTech, wrote on that site this past summer that "many of the top socially entrepreneurial organizations work in international development, building products, services and social capital to improve lives at the base of the pyramid, yet they are often based in the UK or the US with founders and CEOs hailing from the Western world." She cited D.light Design, FORGE, FaceAids, and Kiva as some examples of social ventures that develop their products by native Westerners or those educated in the West. Mohnot wrote that while these social ventures "subsequently engage locals in pilots, distribution or marketing, the initial product design is often the sole realm of the US arm."

To be sure, it's not true that all social innovators have MBAs and that they're all "Anglo-Saxon" as Schwartz put it. But the debate continues over what some see as troubling trends in this new field of social enterprise.

What do you think? Do you perceive yourself to be in what Mohnot called an elite "social entrepreneur's club?" Or is the debate unfair or misinformed? Does it raise some important or long-ignored issues that should continue to be discussed across the sector?

—By Marcia Stepanek

(This was first posted on and reposts here with permission)

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home