• Tips for Entrepreneurs

How to Become a Social Entrepreneur

What does it take to become a company that is more focused on societal change than financial reward?

That is but one of the questions we asked Pamela Hartigan, the director of Oxford’s Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, which is named for eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll—one of the world’s best known “philanthroactivists.”

Married to an Australian for 40 years, Hartigan was recently featured in an article published in Australia’s Dumbo Feather.com that describes her as talking with rage and energy.

“She also talks no bullshit,” insists reporter Patrick Pittman, adding that Hartigan has “spent a career working to disrupt and change systems from within and from without. She builds bridges.”

We had the privilege of interviewing this petite powerhouse in New York City earlier this summer, and found that Pittman’s observations were spot-on. Scroll down to see for yourself.

Be Inkandescent: You been quoted as saying that the new term “social entrepreneurialism” doesn’t exactly explain the true nature of this growing phenomenon. How would you redefine it?

Pamela Hartigan: I think of this business model as “sustainable entrepreneurship,” because it has to be socially sustainable, financially sustainable, and environmentally sustainable. For years, “social entrepreneur” has served as a useful term, but I think that people confuse it with charity—and it is not about charity. It is about really rebooting the entire system in an entrepreneurial way so that we really are responding to what we call wicked problems—intractable problems that we are having a terrible time trying to solve.

It is really interesting, but sometimes I think we live in the “age of stupid,” where solutions are so obvious. People don’t know the simple things and they want to over-complicate things. Many of the entrepreneurs I work with aren’t held back by this thinking. They find a very simple solution to a complex problem that has eluded so many for so long; and then people see what they are doing and say, “but that’s so easy.”

Be Inkandescent: In your book, you write about Andrea and Barry Coleman, founders of Riders For Health as a good example of this phenomenon.

Pamela Hartigan: Yes, they are the perfect example, because these two motorcycle fanatics went to Africa to race motorcycles, and found that all the vehicles used by the ministries and big NGOs delivering health services were nonfunctional. They realized that it was simply because no one knew how to repair these vehicles, and there were no parts available to repair them.

They saw that the solution was to create a transportation maintenance system, and so they built an organization that trains people in the community to do the day-to-day maintenance and repair of the vehicles. They have also developed a very simple, effective procurement process to buy the parts that are needed. It is so simple.

When you ask Barry Coleman about it, he says, “We change the oil filters, and we teach people.” But what he’s doing in rural Africa is actually quite profound because about 60 percent of the people in the rural areas have precarious living conditions, and transportation is really important.

Be Inkandescent: Can you give us another example of highly effective social entrepreneur?

Pamela Hartigan: That would be Marc Koska, who came up with what we call “the self-destructible syringe.” The idea came to him after reading a newspaper article in 1984 predicting the transmission of HIV through the reuse of needles and syringes. He vowed to do something about it, and he studied how drug addicts used syringes in the UK, went to Geneva to learn about Public Health Policy, visited several syringe factories, studied plastic injection molding, and read everything available on the transmission of viruses like HIV.

After a year of studying the problem, he concluded that syringe manufacture was the key to the problem. Koska designed a syringe, called the K1, which could be made on existing equipment with a small modification. It was made from the same materials and could be used in the same way as a normal syringe so that health-care professionals would not have to retrain. K1 syringes cannot be used again, ensuring that the next patient will also have a sterile and safe injection. He also realized he needed to teach the public about the dangers of reusing needles. In 2005, he founded The SafePoint Trust, a registered charity dedicated to educating children about this issue.

The best news is that now the World Health Organization is stepping in and ensuring that all syringe manufactures make self-destructing syringes.

Be Inkandescent: It is incredibly hard to get a product to this point, isn’t it?

Pamela Hartigan: It is—but then, life is not easy as an entrepreneur. They change the rules of the game, because they see something that none of the rest of us sees. They are visionaries who put out the idea and inspire people. But they can’t do it alone. If they don’t have a team behind them—others who can operationalize their vision—their ideas will go nowhere. I think we over-emphasis the superhero ideal of the entrepreneur, and under-emphasize the team.

Consider Bo Peabody’s research. In his wonderful book, Lucky or Smart: Secrets to an Entrepreneurial Life, he talks about how he was a B-student and how that’s what made him a great entrepreneur. He explains that he doesn’t just function in terms of really going deep on one particular aspect, the way A-students tend to do. He just knows a little bit of everything, and has what he considers good “peripheral vision.” I recognize that in myself. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, so on my team I place people who are super detail-oriented, because that’s not my strength.

Be Inkandescent: In your book, you name the 10 Characteristics of Successful Social Entrepreneurs. Can you share those with us?

Pamela Hartigan: Of course. Keep in mind that capturing the common characteristics of such extraordinary, diverse people is tough. But there are some especially noteworthy qualities that they all seem to possess.

Among other things, social entrepreneurs:

1. Try to shrug off the constraints of ideology or discipline.

2. Identify and apply practical solutions to social problems, combining innovation, resourcefulness, and opportunity.

3. Innovate by finding a new product, service, or approach to a social problem.

4. Focus—first and foremost—on social value creation and, in that spirit, are willing to share their innovations and insights for others to replicate.

5. Jump in before ensuring they are fully resourced.

6. Have an unwavering belief in everyone’s innate capacity, often regardless of education, to contribute meaningfully to economic and social development.

7. Show a dogged determination that pushes them to take risks that others wouldn’t dare.

8. Balance their passion for change with a zeal to measure and monitor their impact.

9. Have a great deal to teach change-makers in other sectors.

10. Display a healthy impatience, and do not do well in bureaucracies, which can raise succession issues as their organizations grow and almost inevitably become more bureaucratic.

Be Inkandescent: We can’t thank you enough for your time, and look forward to staying in touch with the work you are doing at the Skoll Centre.

Pamela Hartigan: It was my pleasure. Please continue to check out our website for details about social entrepreneurship, www.sbs.ox.ac.uk.

Save the date for the 2013 Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship. It’s our 10th anniversary, and since 2004, the Skoll Foundation and its partners at the Skoll Centre at Oxford University have convened this invitational event, which hosts more than 800 delegates from more than 65 countries for three remarkable days of sharing, learning, and inspiration.

Delegates represent the best and brightest thinkers and practitioners from the social, academic, finance, private, and policy sectors. We invite you to participate in this 10th Skoll World Forum as we engage in collaborative discussion around innovating, accelerating, and scaling solutions to the world’s most pressing social issues.

Past contributors include: Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Former US President Jimmy Carter, Former US Vice President Al Gore, and Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan. Click here for a complete list of speakers and highlights from this year’s event that was held in March 2012.

Click here to buy your copy of The Power of Unreasonable People.

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