Sadna Samaranayake

Social Entrepreneurship Coming Full Circle, at Columbia’s Social Enterprise Conference

We’ve all had those moments we call coming “full circle.” Distinctly different from landing “back at square one,” coming full circle implies we’ve arrived back at the beginning of a journey, or back to an old insight, with the benefit of maturity and wisdom. This year’s Columbia Social Enterprise Conference, on the topic of “Social Innovation in a Networked WorId,” left me almost certain that the social entrepreneurship movement is currently witnessing such a full circle moment on several fronts, most notably, when it comes to our collective understanding of what a “networked world” means. I expected an agenda stacked to illustrate the potential of technological innovations in social entrepreneurship and the promise of social media. What I witnessed instead was a collective ease with revisiting “old-school” concepts of “the network”; the power of human capital, and the value of harnessing personal connection and social networks in the most interpersonal sense.

This year, Columbia University convened social entrepreneurs, impact investors, students and one newly minted Nobel Laureate, named that very morning – Leymah Gbowee of Liberia. Her grit and leadership, memorialized in the 2008 documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, is credited as the driving force behind the mass uprising of Christian and Muslim women who sat in public protest of Liberia’s then president Charles Taylor, and his ruthless warlords, who were eventually ousted.

We heard from Nancy Barry, formerly the President of Women’s World Banking, and now President of NBA Enterprise Solutions to Poverty, Matt Klein, Executive Director of Blue Ridge Foundation, and Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, as well as academics, practitioners and investors that spanned geographies and sectors. With synchronicity that could not have been designed, these speakers returned to themes that underscored that social entrepreneurship is growing up, and getting back to basics.

Social Networks, Back to the Beginning

Leymah Gbowee represents a rare success story in peace building, and peaceful protest. Perhaps the toughest permutation of social entrepreneurship there is, peace building has no dedicated investment funds, no revenue streams, no easy measures of successes, and often happens under the threat of violence. It’s the kind of environment where one hopes technology can add something extra – a boost, a platform, some efficiencies in organizing and communicating, as has been the case in the Arab Spring.

Gbowee spoke about her organizing efforts in 2003, pre-FaceBook and Twitter, distinctly low-tech, yet highly networked, that tapped the energy of human networks, and created a people-to-people infrastructure that seeded revolutionary change.

“In a matter of months our movement had spread to nine of Liberia’s 15 counties- we’re talking hours away… those who had cell phones called. Where there were no cell phones, people went and used word of mouth. The churches were important, the mosques were important, the market areas were important. We would use those areas as a means of spreading our message.”

Given her success with grassroots organizing, we couldn’t help but wonder what Gbowee thought of the Occupy Wall Street movement. She responded:

“A key factor of the work that we did is that we had an agenda. If you are doing a protest, you need to have an agenda…The uprising is a good sign… But those who are protesting need to come together now and say these are the reasons why we are Occupying Wall Street… there has to be some plan.”

The Power of Intentionality

The theme of intentionality, and a call to social entrepreneurs to constantly ask of themselves: “What is it that I am trying to accomplish here?” was resoundingly echoed at the Columbia Social Enterprise Conference. According to Klein of Blue Ridge Foundation, in the evermore crowded space of social innovation, and in a time where digital time cycles are getting shorter and donors expect results and metrics to keep pace, intentionality is increasingly important.

“Without the intentionality of the hypothesis in the beginning, and some internal accountability to know whether your pilots, experiments or intuitions are correct, I think there is less of a tolerance for the view that because the work is motivated by good reasons, that it should continue. There is more of an expectation that yes, it might not work, but you have to know why it’s not working, and how you plan to change.”

Said Barry, “You cannot stop innovating and asking yourself, is this thing having the desired impact?” She added, “I feel extremely strongly that big problems require big solutions. I see many social entrepreneurs hide behind poor management, poor leadership, poor systems, poor business models, poor executing plans, poor financing plans– to say we are still looking at impact. If you don’t have a model that works, get out of the business.”

More than just the compass check that every social entrepreneur should take on from time to time, to course correct for the impact they set out to achieve, the real “power of intentionality” is perhaps that it is the last-best-antidote to several ills of social entrepreneurship; being stuck in a series of small scale experiments (Pilot-itis), lack of clarity on what to measure and how to translate data into action (Paralysis through Analysis), and worst of all, the kind of large-scale departures from social value creation, in favor of financial returns that, left unchecked, can be a blight on entire industries- like the current controversies surrounding microfinance.


Perhaps the surest sign that conversations around social entrepreneurship are reaching a new stage of maturity was the willingness of participants, students and speakers alike to discuss the taboo “F” word in Social Entrepreneurship – Failure.

“We need to be more open about, and accepting of, and generous toward failure- because of the lessons that can come from it, but also in recognition of the challenges that Social Entrepreneurs are facing,” advised Matt Klein. “People don’t talk about failure for a lot of reasons. It’s brutally painful. If we could talk about failure and lessons learned with generosity, it might give people more freedom to innovate and acknowledge where they have gone wrong and help those who are motivated and talented to adjust and iterate.”

The Long View of Social Entrepreneurship

Dorsey offered an observation on how she believes history will view social entrepreneurship. “We are evolving how we look at problems and we begin to believe that we can actually solve problems as opposed to just ameliorating the symptoms.” She posits the long view of the social entrepreneurship movement will tell a story of a shift in our collective consciousness towards understanding that the capacity to solve our problems is within our reach.

None of us know how the story of social entrepreneurship will ultimately be written, but if the comments and insights offered at this year’s Columbia Social Enterprise Conference are any indication, we are having a more open dialogue, more nuanced, less taken with trends, technology, and other trappings, and more centered on individuals, intentionality and impact.

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