Blair Miller

NexThought Monday: A New Movement – From Divergence to Convergence?

A few days ago a friend of mine, Sonny Garg, asked me “is this movement (social entrepreneurship) really any bigger or different than any other social justice movement we have seen? And if so, why?” After giving it more thought, my answer in short, was “yes.” Below are some of the ideas that came out of our dialogue and we would be very interested in your thoughts and reflections.

Any Larger?

The first argument for this movement being larger is the concept of “extended community.” Sonny said, “Perhaps what we are seeing is not so much an increase in a commitment to social change but rather a broadening amongst young people (and society generally) of their definition of community, hence expanding the pie.” From my perspective, I observe this happening from three main sources.

The first is the rise of social media. Just last week I was at the Women in the World conference and met an incredible entrepreneur from Uganda whom I had been following on Twitter. While I had never met her before when we “met” at the conference it was as if she and I were old friends. Even before we met in person, we felt connected, a part of the same community. Facebook, Twitter, Community sites, Kiva (which just announced it has reached $200 million in loans), they all can have the same impact.

The second is the increase in international study and travel programs like Global Citizen Year, School for International Training, Atlas Corps – all which allow people to see social inequality face to face rather than on an infomercial. Living abroad changes lives, redefines stereotypes, challenges assumptions, humbles you, and most importantly expands your community.

The third is the democratization of knowledge. Knowledge used to be owned by the elite but that is changing and the voices of the marginalized are becoming louder. Take for example TEDx, the Arab uprisings, Grameen Phone, which have not only disseminated knowledge to the poor but more importantly allowed the poor to share their voice on a global stage (Watch this TED talk by Chris Anderson if you don’t believe me).

Because of this extended community, I do believe this movement is bigger and perhaps we can show the world what global inclusivity truly means.

Any Different?

The second part of the question was, is this movement any different than any other social justice movement we have seen?

I do think this movement is different. This movement is more about convergence than divergence. For example the Civil Rights Movement was about divergence from the mainstream while this movement is about convergence of a social agenda into mainstream thinking and in particular business practices. I am not saying one is better than the other, they are just different. I believe deeply in the importance of divergence to create social change (We spend a lot of time understanding these movements in the Fellows Training). We will always need dissidents to speak truth to power and show that it is time to diverge from an old oppressive system (Havel, King, the recent Arab uprisings are all examples of this).

But the social entrepreneurship movement is doing is something different.

We are seeing an emerging group of system changers that are pushing us to think beyond the traditional silos that force us to make a black and white decision, “Is this business or charity?” These system changers are starting to experiment with integrating their social change passion with their private sector professions and vice versa.

Take for example 2009 Acumen Global Fellow Heidi Krauel. Heidi is one of the most astute business women I have ever met. Heidi has chosen to build a career that straddles both business and social change, she is the COO of New Island Capital, a social investment fund that deploys patient capital – at scale – to generate risk-adjusted financial returns. What people like Heidi are doing is validating for the rest of us that you do not have to make a choice between business or social, in fact you can find a way to do both. While it is not easy and it does involve sacrifice, this is an inclusive movement for everyone – not just the dissidents among us.

When it comes to our leadership vision at Acumen Fund, we do believe in the idea of convergence. We want to extend our community and create role models (through our team, the Global Fellows Program, and now the East Africa Fellows Program) who can transcend boundaries and have the operational and financial skill sets combined with the moral imagination to build a more inclusive society and social system. If we can make social impact a board room topic (see Michael Porter’s recent article on “Shared Value”) and make financial sustainability, transparency, and accountability a part of the grassroots discussions then perhaps we can break down barriers that keep us so divided (and have prevented social movements from being as pervasive as they could be).

So, in short – Yes, I do think this movement is different and more pervasive. Do you?

Follow Blair on Twitter at @AcuBlair.

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