What Would It Take? Social Entrepreneurship Over Poverty

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What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue, Momentum magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Wayne Ellwood spoke with Solomon Prakash, the India country director of Ashoka, an international social entrepreneurship agency, on what it would take for social entrepreneurship to help pull people out of poverty. 

How did you become involved in social entrepreneurship?

I started as an engineer. I worked for a small company in Bangalore for a number of years, mostly in special purpose machine design. Then in 1987 I went to Europe, where I became interested in alternative communities. I visited these communities all across Europe, and I brought that experience back to India with me. In November 1989 I started a nonprofit organization in Bangalore working with young people, connecting homeless kids to jobs and helping them get in touch with their parents.

What would it take for social entrepreneurship to make serious inroads into poverty?

If you tackle a problem like poverty head on, you need a set of people on your core team who share your vision. This can be a challenge.

The difference between a social entrepreneur and a business entrepreneur is one of commitment and vision. In a business, you might bail out once you’d made enough money. In social entrepreneurship, you believe you can solve a problem and that others will work with you to solve that problem. That core team needs to grow; otherwise, you don’t have the skills to manage the project as it grows. You need talented people who are both committed and dedicated, who are willing to live and work in isolated areas in poor conditions for very little money. Sometimes people want to work in a social enterprise because the work is different. “I may not have much money,” they say, “but my soul is satisfied and I feel happy because I’ve made a contribution.”

We also need to think creatively about funding because there are serious challenges in the kind of finances available. Increasingly, granting organizations are looking at things like returnable grants or interest-free loans to make their money last longer. Some people are talking about “social venture” funding, which is a similar model to private venture capital funding. They’re expecting returns similar to microfinancing, which was hugely profitable. But that’s not going to happen.

We don’t usually think of entrepreneurship in the context of poverty or solving social problems.

I didn’t start off as a social entrepreneur. I started off as a person who wanted to respond to a particular set of problems. But I thought and behaved like an entrepreneur: You have an idea, you put together a team and you try to raise money. You solve issues as you go along, as any entrepreneur typically would build an enterprise.

Many years later I realized that this is what social entrepreneurs do. But I didn’t start with that notion. I started as an average person saying, “OK, how do I solve this problem?” I understood the business issues, but I also understood that you are not only looking at profit, you’re also looking at other outcomes.

When I started I never thought of myself as selfless. My satisfaction from work was not money but what I love doing most. Of course it had a certain political framework, a framework of justice, a sense of what was fair, and I responded to that.

Are you optimistic about social entrepreneurs making serious inroads into poverty?

I think the next 10 years will be the decade of social entrepreneurs. I see lots of talented people who want to solve social problems making serious career changes. Some mainstream design firms have actually set up a whole branch around social innovation. Consulting companies are looking at hybrid models of social change. Increasingly, companies are saying it’s no longer possible to look at customers just as consumers. More and more people understand that social change is no longer a marginal activity. The opportunity is huge to solve problems and to come up with interesting commercial models that can be sustainable.

Published in association with Momentum, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

Image courtesy of Solomon Prakash.

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