Work the Edge

On my last trip to Portland, a group of fellow social entrepreneurs and mentors enjoyed lunch. Predictably, some of us had victories to celebrate while others it seemed were nearing the end of their metaphorical rope. A string of evaporating deals, missed deadlines, and ‘complicated’ international relations had left one colleague emotionally dangling from a knot at the end of said rope.

As the rest of us commiserated, one of our mentors leaned forward and simply said; “you just keep working the edge.”

Lunch ended, but the phrase kept coming back to me. It’s been months now, and I don’t think the full meaning has crystallized yet, but this much I know:

Whether we’re tucking into a massive slab of steak, turning a misshapen hunk of granite into our generation’s David, or trying to vanquish diarrheal disease in the Central African Republic, the best approach (sometimes the only one with any hope of success) is to consistently work the edge.

Attack whatever bit of the problem is most accessible. Nip away at it where it’s thinnest for now and some day (probably sooner than you think) the impenetrable, dark, tangled heart of the thing will (miraculously, but also reliably) have become “edge.”

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"Seeing" Female Social Entrepreneurs

A genuine answer to Teju’s genuine question: “Where are all the Women?”

Each of us encounters more information in every moment of everyday life than we can possibly consciously process. So, as a natural survival mechanism, we developed ways to skim information, pick out the important bits and let the rest fade into the background. To recognize examples (and non-examples) of things, we form “schemas” for them.

So, when we’re looking for apples, objects that are elongated…or orange…or metallic…are automatically (efficiently) rejected. These schemas save us enormous amounts of time. In fact, individuals unable to form them are usually unable to function in society.

But what happens when something contradicts our schemas?

Barring some kind of conscious effort, we simply don’t see them. They don’t register as members of the set we’re looking for. With conscious effort we can get past the double-takes, and reconcile the mismatch with a conscious exception–that often comes out in language (eg. “male nurse.”)

Women simply don’t fit most people’s schema of the entrepreneur–so when they look around for entrepreneurs, they see men. (Case in point: GOOD magazine writes about the innovative Thrust Fund, and calls Kjerstin Erikson a man.)

Perhaps it’s because women place greater value on teams and networks and tend to exhibit less of the “charismatic lone wolf” leadership style we’ve come to expect from entrepreneurs. Perhaps it’s because the organizations they lead tend to experience less of the financial volatility and drama we associate with entrepreneurship. Perhaps it’s just good old-fashioned sexism.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that despite their under-representation in research, funding and the media, there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of female social entrepreneurs out there working for sustainable social change–and doing a bang-up job of it.

It’s time we all learned to “see” them.

10 Commandments of Impact Investing

From Geoff Wolley (of HuntsmanGay Capital Impact) keynote at the BYU Economic Self-Reliance Conference

1. Thou Shalt Not Underestimate the Amount of Time and Commitment Required to Be a Social Entrepreneur
Period.

2. Thou Shalt Not Save the World
Give yourself a reality check–try to get 10 people around you to change their minds/behavior…chances are 9 of them won’t. Be realistic.

3. Thou Shalt Know Thy Client or Topic
In general, we do a better idea of serving the “desperate poor” rather than the “poor but moving.” Pick a market and understand it, over time.

4. Thou Shalt Avoid Double Risk
Don’t try to create a new slice of the pie (category of expenses) for your client. Doing so doubles your work–you have to sell them the need for the service, then sell them on you as the best provider.

5. Thou Shalt Avoid Plans That Require the Client to Invest in Infrastructure
The poor operate on a “pay-as-you-go” basis. Adapt.

6. Thou Shalt Not Doubt Your Client’s Smarts
The poor know things intuitively, and understand those things to a level, that the rest of us will probably never figure out. Bridge the vocabulary divide and give them product they can sell.

7. Thou Shalt Not Become an Armchair Social Entrepreneur
Beware of constant “conferring”… set your own ratio of field work to conferences and guard it zealously.

8. Thou Shalt Love Risk…Just Not Stupid Risks
One word: Pilots. Don’t build a huge company before you prove that it will work on a small scale. Take risk in bite-sized pieces.

9. Thou Shalt Work Within the Culture, But Don’t Always Accept Its Ways
Prevailing wisdom isn’t always wise. If things are failing, make sure you really know why.

10. Thou Shalt Always Be Grateful to the BYU Economic Self-Reliance Center

“I want to be part of that!” (Part II)

This second half of the reflection has been a bit delayed. You can read Part I here.

The JetBlue “All You Can Jet” experience and the growing momentum of the Tipping Bucket adventure seem to have crammed a great deal of experience and exposure into the last 60 days. You’ve probably experienced something similar–like 6 months of interaction have been compressed into 1.

One of the themes that’s emerged from the blur is this linguistic anomaly: I don’t think I have ever heard someone say they want to “do” social entrepreneurship…or “work in” it…or “try” it.

The language of social entrepreneurship is fundamentally different. They want to BE.

Social entrepreneurship is about being part of something, something bigger than yourself, something lasting and meaningful. Social entrepreneurship is something that you give yourself to. Before long it takes over. And, next time you turn around, you are a social entrepreneur.