• May 2010

Social Entrepreneurs: The Common Denominator

By Angela Sontheimer
Managing Director
Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg

When it comes to leadership, I have always admired Muhammad Yunus and his important work in Bangladesh.

In fact, while getting my master’s degree in leadership and liberal studies from Duquesne University, I wrote a paper about his incredible effectiveness. One of the aspects of his work always intrigued me.

What characteristics and traits do social entrepreneurs share?

According to Harvard Graduate School of Education professor Howard Gardner and his associate Lynn Barendsen, social entrepreneurs often have experienced trauma early in life or have undergone a “deeply transformative experience.”

They also share an interest in social issues often beginning in childhood and quite frequently come from homes where social activism is practiced and nurtured. Other common traits they identified as ones shared by various social entrepreneurs are “energetic”, “confident”, having “the ability to inspire others to join them in their work”, “pragmatic”, and “independent.”

What’s more, they identified an affinity toward spirituality or religion amongst social entrepreneurs. Their research describes this trait as being aligned with the Judaic concept of tikkun olam or the “repair of the world”. Social entrepreneurs want to fix society where they see a deficit.

Barendsen and Gardner also identified three strategies that social entrepreneurs use to accomplish their goals.

These are “reframing challenges”, a “sense of obligation”, and a constant focus on “measuring success”. According to them, social entrepreneurs are able to see problems or challenges as opportunities not obstacles.

To them, goodness can arise out of painful, unpleasant or traumatic experiences. Additionally, social entrepreneurs feel an overwhelming sense of obligation and responsibility to their work.

According to many social entrepreneurs they interviewed, these individuals said that they had “no choice but to continue in their work.”

Finally, Barendsen and Gardner point out that social entrepreneurs are highly focused on assessing their successes and failures. Their careful evaluations allow them to constantly improve and adjust strategies aimed at success.

Which brings me to another question: Do you have the makings of a social entrepreneur?

Before you decide, consider the reach that Yunus’ bank has had as a change agent in the lives of millions.

Early in its inception, participants drafted ten decisions used to guide their behavior and decisions. Later at a national meeting these ten were amended to total 16.

Grameen Bank’s 16 Decisions

1. We shall follow and advance the four principles of Grameen Bank —- Discipline, Unity, Courage and Hard work – in all walks of our lives.

2. Prosperity we shall bring to our families.

3. We shall not live in dilapidated houses. We shall repair our houses and work towards constructing new houses at the earliest.

4. We shall grow vegetables all year round. We shall eat plenty of them and sell the surplus.

5. During the plantation seasons, we shall plant as many seedlings as possible.

6. We shall plan to keep our families small. We shall minimize our expenditures. We shall look after our health.

7. We shall educate our children and ensure that they can earn to pay for their education.

8. We shall always keep our children and the environment clean.

9. We shall build and use pit-latrines.

10. We shall drink water from tubewells. If it is not available, we shall boil water or use alum.

11. We shall not take any dowry at our sons’ weddings, neither shall we give any dowry at our daughters’ wedding. We shall keep our centre free from the curse of dowry. We shall not practice child marriage.

12. We shall not inflict any injustice on anyone, neither shall we allow anyone to do so.

13. We shall collectively undertake bigger investments for higher incomes.

14. We shall always be ready to help each other. If anyone is in difficulty, we shall all help him or her.

15. If we come to know of any breach of discipline in any centre, we shall all go there and help restore discipline.

16. We shall take part in all social activities collectively.

While many of these decisions seem basic or common sense to those of us living in a first world economy, they provide a blueprint for societal success and prosperity that before Grameen wasn’t the concern of banks. With the adoption of these Decisions, what began as a way to extend collateral-free microloans to the poor has become a way to truly change society.

Those who wish to break the cycle of poverty are provided with both the economic and the social resources and the guidance to do so. Here’s to making a difference.


About Angela Sontheimer

Angela is managing director of Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg, where she is responsible for overseeing operations, marketing and curriculum design. She is a graduate of Gettysburg College and holds a masters degree in leadership and liberal studies from Duquesne University.

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