Blair Miller

Unlocking the Levers for Change: Stop Waiting for Permission

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the Acumen Fund blog and has been cross-posted with permission.

Last week I spoke in an undergraduate class on Global Social Entrepreneurship 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. 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 want to clarify one thing about the way that I look at this space. I believe social entrepreneurship is a way of thinking that brings together two seemingly disparate ideas and harnesses the power of the market as a force for social development. I also believe that social enterprise is just one approach, one star in the galaxy that this movement is ultimately 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), the late 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 for meaningful impact. Unrelentingly and without permission.

So yes, one trend is that these changemakers fearlessly followed their passions. 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 mainstream institutions. 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, 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. This necessitates, at some point, learning the foundation to work within that system. Cambridge Leadership Associates, whose work is spun out of the great leadership thinker Ronald Heifetz, discusses a similar concept when talking about adaptive leadership. 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 (think Wendy Kopp, Founder of Teach for America or Chris Anderson, Curator of TED) is that they were able to create accessible 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, they have built a brand that can mesh with the mainstream, while at the same time allow people to think outside the box. 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. Anderson showed us that one of the most exclusive brands in the world could also be 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 the incredible potential of energetic young people and new ideas.

To come 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.

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