Last week I spoke in an undergraduate Global Social Entrepreneurship class at New York University. The class was filled with engaged, motivated young people with a passion for social change. In the beginning of the class I asked the students to go around the room and tell me what they wanted to learn from me during the next hour. Hands down the majority of the room wanted to know how I got into the field and how they could build the right career path that would allow them to enter into the field of social entrepreneurship. These students are just one small example of the hundreds of young people I have talked to who have the same questions and then multiply that by the number of people who my colleagues in this field talk to per week and you easily get thousands. But the question remains, how exactly does one build a career in the field of social entrepreneurship?
Before I answer, or at least attempt to share some ideas, I wanted to say one thing. I believe social entrepreneurship is a way of thinking of bringing together two seeming disparate ideas and harnessing the power of the market as a force for social development. I also believe that the act of social enterprise is just one star in the galaxy that this movement is going to create. If you think about the field in this way it opens up an entire runway of opportunities. So then the question remains, what is keeping so many from finding their place in this field?
My first thought is that, for as entrepreneurial and capable as this generation is, we are all still waiting for permission. What is so unique about the founders of our field like Jacqueline Novogratz (Founder of Acumen Fund), CK Prahalad (Author of Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid), and Bill Drayton (Founder of Ashoka) is that they did not wait for permission, and as a result, they created an entire field. I bet if you ask any one of them about their career path they would all say, they followed their passion. No one gave them permission to do this. No one said to Jacqueline first go into banking, then do microfinance in Rwanda, then go to Stanford Business School, then to Rockefeller Foundation, only then can you create Acumen Fund. She just followed her passion.
So yes, one trend is that they all followed their passion. But there is also something else that appears as a trend across these innovators, at some point in their careers they learned and integrated themselves into the traditional system. Jacqueline spent a few years in banking and went to B-School, Bill Drayton worked for McKinsey and the EPA, and CK Prahalad built his early career at Union Carbide. This allowed them to understand the system, earn credibility, and ultimately to innovate upon it.
So my first piece of advice for those of you trying to get into this field is to follow your passion but at the same time you have to understand the system you are trying to change before you can change it. So at some point you need to work within that system. Cambridge Leadership Associates, whose work is spun out of the great leadership thinker Ronald Heifetz, discusses this idea of adaptive leadership and it is very much the same concept. How can you as a leader innovate at a pace the system can handle?
The second concept is for those who are either building a new organization or who are trying to scale. What is unique about the leaders in this field who have scaled their idea (Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen Fund, Wendy Kopp, Founder of Teach for America,, Chris Anderson, Curator of TED) is that they were able to create institutions that allowed thousands or millions of people to have permission to think outside the box.
How were they able to do this? If you look closely at these organizations, admittedly all very different, they built a brand that fit into the mainstream but at the same time allowed people to think outside the box. For example, Wendy Kopp said, go commit yourself to public education for two years but don’t worry our brand and credibility will allow you to still go work at Goldman Sachs after the program. While they could still go to Goldman, her bet was these two years would change their lives forever. Chris Anderson showed us that the most exclusive brand in the world can also be completely given away to the masses through video streams and Tedx events. His bet was that the power of the ideas was so much greater than the exclusivity of the brand. These leaders figured out ways to identify the levers, work within the system, and then unlock those levers to unleash the incredible potential of energetic young people and new ideas.
So coming full circle back to those of you trying to find your career path in the field of social entrepreneurship. First, figure out your star in this emerging galaxy. Second, follow your passion. Third, deeply understand the system you are trying to change. Fourth, identify the levers that can unlock the tremendous potential that exists in our world today.