Image by Jean Pichot

Social entrepreneurship is to business what Tiger Woods was to golf – something exciting and new in an otherwise static world. But the question is, will either still be relevant in 30 years?

LIFE IS CHANGE. In the eighties we hopped on the bigger is better bandwagon. The nineties held the advent of the dotcoms and of course, the dotcom bubble. We lost the better part of the 2000’s to 9/11 and a war on two fronts. This served as the red herring while back room deals were done in penthouse offices until they were called out and our world tipped like dominoes from Lehman Brothers down to Auntie Mae’s Five and Dime. As the dust settles and the smoke rises, little seedlings sprout up. They are social enterprises. But can they really save us?

Possibly, but if these seedlings are to assume a rooted place in our social and economic landscape, it won’t depend on how we do business, but rather on how we think about business. Social entrepreneurship, by and large, has been a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Businesses have commoditized the concept. They’ve created sustainability departments, they’ve made pledges to reduce carbon emissions, and they give products to needy kids in Africa every time someone buys one in the States. These are all new ways to do things with the same old thinking. It’s what Cradle to Cradle authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart call ‘less bad’.

Continued social transgressions paired with the desire to make our world better have led to the sustainability movement. Sustainability’s focus is on maintaining, when the last thing we need is to maintain the current environment. If social entrepreneurship is to really shake things up, it must work toward connecting the fragmented system with an aim to increase its health and vitality, not sustain it (or do it less harm).

The greatest travesty of the 20th century wasn’t the bigger is better paradigm, it wasn’t the beheading of mountaintops, the advent of modern day sweatshops, or even the attitude that consumerism is good. It was the belief that we can look at things within the system as if they are not connected to everything else.

The greatest travesty of the 20th century wasn’t the bigger is better paradigm, it wasn’t the beheading of mountaintops, the advent of modern day sweatshops, or even the attitude that consumerism is good. It was the belief that we can look at things within the system as if they are not connected to everything else.

Whether in medicine, education or business, our belief that we can address one part of the whole without looking at the relationships between them has served as the root of every problem we face. Social, environmental, and economic systems are complex, and when we distill them into parts and try to affect those parts alone we wind up perennially addressing symptoms.

To make this shift, we needn’t focus on a new way of doing things, but rather a new way of thinking about things. Businesses must recognize and honor their relationships to the communities in which they exist, their employees, distributors, the natural world, the lives of their customers, and yes, their investors too. If this way of thinking is adopted by business on a grand scale, and value can be added within these relationships, it will reconnect that which has been torn asunder in the past 100 years and give us the opportunity for wide scale reinvention. But for now, the fate of both Tiger Woods and social entrepreneurship remains to be seen.

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