Social entrepreneurs building the new Jamaica


Wednesday, January 26, 2011    

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It's not usual that one sees the words "social" and "entrepreneur" going together. Most people have an inkling of what the word "entrepreneur" means. Mention the word and the image of someone who takes risk in business to make a profit comes to mind. To go a little deeper into the meaning, the word "entrepreneur" was first used two centuries ago by French economist Jean-Baptiste to refer to "someone who shifts economic resources out of an area of lower into an area of higher productivity and greater yield". That's pretty much what an entrepreneur does.

The word social, on the other hand, refers to humans, you and me, living in society; reacting one with another and sharing resources; facing problems that are common to all and which we must solve together. Putting the two words "social" and "entrepreneur" together, the simplest meaning is one who uses business ideas and approaches to solve complex social problems. The late management guru Peter Drucker put it succinctly when he said, "The social entrepreneur changes the performance capacity of society."

It becomes even more complex when one tries to explain that social entrepreneurship and charity are cousins, not brothers or sisters; in other words they are not one and the same thing. The Roman Catholic nun Mother Teresa who has been immortalised for her work with the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta is the modern face of charity. Mother Teresa was no social entrepreneur. She mobilised resources to bring relief to the poor where the need was felt; she lived among the poor and looked like them. The social entrepreneur has the same heart but the means and outcomes are different. The social entrepreneur trades on success; he or she creates opportunities and wealth so that the poor lift themselves by their own initiative acting in the interest of themselves and the wider community. It's the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching a man how to fish.

Neither is social entrepreneurship philanthropy. The following words attributed to John Wesley are descriptive of the philanthropist. "Earn all you can; save all you can; multiply it all you can, then give all you can for you can't take it with you." By common perception and practice, philanthropy is something the rich do as an end-of-life gesture. Not so with social entrepreneurship; it is prime time, real time, all the time. Take Bill Gates of Microsoft fame, for instance. He gave up responsibility for running the daily operations of one of the world's most successful firms while still in his prime. He now runs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through which he is investing the billions of dollars he and others like Warren Buffet have amassed in solving complex societal problems like AIDS/HIV and low academic attainment among children in depressed communities. Bill Gates has discovered the secret of doing well for himself by doing good for others. He has gone from being a business entrepreneur to being a social entrepreneur.

Jamaica took a giant leap forward toward understanding and applying the principles of social entrepreneurship at the first Observer Monday Exchange for 2011 when the Agency for Inner-city Renewal (AIR) and the University College of the Caribbean (UCC) announced the launch of the Institute for Social Entrepreneurship and Equity (I-SEE) and the Executive Masters in Business Administration (EMBA) in Social Entrepreneurship. Dr Michael Rosberg, Director of I-SEE, explained the significance of this far-reaching development thus: "Corporate Jamaica and people from all walks of life give of their substance - their time, talent and treasure - towards ameliorating the severe social, economic and environmental problems that retard the progress of the nation, yet these problems remain resistant to traditional solutions and are in some cases increasing. The time has come to extend our philanthropic and charitable deeds to include social entrepreneurship, an innovative approach toward solving complex societal problems using business ideas and approaches."

Mr Winston Adams, himself a recognised business entrepreneur and former nominee for The Observer Business Leader Awards, was on hand to announce the launch of the EMBA in Social Entrepreneurship, which is to be offered by the University College of the Caribbean of which he is the president, in partnership with I-SEE. His words are encouraging to the many Jamaicans - pastors, teachers, medical practitioners, business people, social workers, and retirees - who have a passion for community transformation and for lifting up the downtrodden. "Like business entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship is not only acquired at birth or through socialisation; it can be taught; it is a vocation. UCC is proud to partner with I-SEE in bringing to Jamaicans in the first instance and later to our Caricom sisters and brothers a course taught by the world's leading universities but being offered by a regional institution for the first time. Persons who pursue this course of study will experience a significant improvement in their knowledge and ability to do well for themselves by doing good for others and for society."

The enthusiasm of Dr Michael Rosberg and Mr Winston Adams and the others who attended the Observer Monday Exchange is not unwarranted. Social entrepreneurs have risen to the challenge of tackling the problems, which keep one-fifth of the world's population mired in poverty and despair, breeding hopelessness, crime and violence. They have powerful ideas for improving people's lives without an immediate or apparent profit motive.

Our understanding of how business can engage civil society has come a long way from Milton Friedman, reputed to be the father of modern capitalism, and his famous retort that "the only social responsibility business has is to make a profit" to Stuart L Hart, who warns in his book Capitalism at the Crossroads of the catastrophe that awaits future generations if action is not taken now to tame capitalism's appetite for more and more of Mother Earth's finite resources and the lack of concern it displays toward human and environmental issues in its use of harmful extractive processes. The age of the social entrepreneur is at hand. The Institute for Social Entrepreneurship and Equity, and the University College of the Caribbean are leading the way in ensuring that Jamaica benefits from the new paradigm of doing business with a social conscience and doing social work with a business focus.





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