I think we might be teaching social entrepreneurship wrong

By Jessamyn Lau 


(On second thoughts I’d rename this “I think we’ve got SE education wrong”)

Many schools begin their social entrepreneurship education with an intro to social entrepreneurs, teaching students what SE is and exposing them to various social entrepreneurs and the amazing solutions are they come up with. “Look how cool SE is!”, “You can change the world too!”, are the general messages reinforced.

The natural next step is a social venture business plan competition or a venture creation class. This is the way I began learning about SE, and know from first hand experience that in many ways this is great -it encourages students to think more deeply about a specific solution and sort through the myriad of details necessary to come to viable solution to a social problem. However, for a couple of reasons, I don’t think this is the best way of going about SE education.

In my opinion, this approach does a significant amount of disservice to students. They are encouraged to come up with an effective solution to a social problem, write the business plan, and launch their venture, in only a semester or two. No wonder so many ventures fail or struggle to find funding. Firstly, most students interested in SE aren’t entrepreneurs and know that -they then struggle to find where they fit and can contribute. Secondly, in general the entrepreneurial students don’t yet have a deep understanding of these extremely complex problems, or the highly developed and entrenched systems in which they are found. Yes there are a few break-out, star solutions produced by young and recently graduated SE’s, but for the most part the truly impressive SE’s whose solutions have potential to scale to the size of the problem, are those who have years of, often highly specific, experience. And perhaps have spent years wrestling with or coming to the right solution.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t start ventures if they aren’t going to be world changing ideas, or even if they will fail as ventures. I think there is enormous value in learning from a real start-up experience. What I am saying is this:

We need to set a more realistic timeline for students; for social entrepreneurs and social innovators. You don’t have to graduate and start a world changing venture or immediately get the dream job. In fact the social innovation field, and you, might be better off if you don’t. You’ve heard of patient capital? I’d like to argue we need more patient changemakers. Take your time. If this really is a life commitment, deliberately build yourself in to the person with the potential to meet the magnitude of the job.

More on this later…