From a mathematician to the former director of the Israeli Mossad: 10 Lessons for Social Entrepreneurs from THiNK 2012

Will Sloan
19th Nov 2012
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The aptly named THiNK 2012 Conference concluded in Goa earlier this month and no doubt left each member of the departing audience with an insight, idea, or perspective that they had not arrived with. Bringing together great minds in the fields of math, science, politics, media, technology, communication, activism, philosophy, spirituality, and art, the event became a sanctuary for progressive thinking and a weekend retreat into the unconventional for its equally diverse audience.

As a correspondent for a media company focused on startups and entrepreneurs, I went to Goa with the hopes of encountering a few interesting and story-worthy innovators throughout the weekend. I came out, however, far more inspired by the diversity of “thinkers,” and the pertinence their progressive ideas had far beyond their respective fields. What follows, therefore, are ten of the most salient lessons that I came away with from THiNK 2012 as they relate to social entrepreneurship.

1. Mona Eltahawy – “Sometimes you have to break the rule out of principle.”

When Mona Eltahawy stood in a New York City subway station and vandalized an anti-Muslim poster, she knew she was breaking the rules. She did it, however, because she felt there was a social value to her actions that outweighed the punishment she would be forced to bear.

This first lesson is not meant to promote lawlessness; that would, after all, be no way to run a business. However, if we think of rules in a broader sense, not so much as laws but as conventions and social norms, then the lesson is important and even beneficial for social innovators. To create a sustainable enterprise whose operations bring both monetary as well as social value it is imperative to step outside of the conventional ways of doing business. The success of social enterprise requires the burning of old rulebooks and the creation of new ones.

2. George Schaller – “You can’t just study something, you have to worry about its future, too.”

The environmental activist George Schaller has devoted the majority of his life to protecting endangered animals from extinction. His time spent studying mountain gorillas in the Congo catalyzed a life of conservation that has put him face to face with drug dealers, poachers, and more recently, armed tribesmen in the mountains of Afghanistan. But what kept Schaller motivated through these perils was a moral realization: that to simply study something, to get to know it, is not enough.

While I am yet to come across any animal conservation enterprises, the lesson is not exclusive to activists. For our purposes, Schaller’s lesson simply points to one of the most popular buzzwords of social enterprise: sustainability. All entrepreneurs must worry about the future of their business. Social entrepreneurs assume an even greater task, that is, to worry about the future of those they are impacting, and often the world in general. Perhaps this is the greatest difference between social entrepreneurs and others: having gotten to know the world, the people in it, the environment, they now assume a certain responsibility to protect its future.

3. Bob Geldof – “To know a problem exists and to do nothing about it is to be

complicit.”Narrowing Bob Geldof’s talk at THiNK into a single lesson for a social entrepreneur is almost an injustice in itself. The man who led the Boomtown Rats twice to a number one spot on the UK Top 40 is known more widely for his activism and philanthropy, most notably for organizing Live Aid, a benefit concert to raise money for the Ethiopian famine, in 1985.

The passionate declaration that he used to describe his own turning point in deciding to dedicate himself to social issues is one that I believe resonates with all social entrepreneurs. Although this lesson is probably not a new one, the gravity of his word choice strikes a deep chord, maybe even disconcerts. It is a useful reminder to all social entrepreneurs of why they have adopted a social stance in their business, and can serve to deter any mission drift among those who become overly enticed by profits.

4. Efraim Halevy – “Beware of unintended consequences.”

Even political philosophy can teach us a little about entrepreneurship, as was the case during the conversation with Efraim Halevy, director of the Israeli Mossad from 1998 to 2002. When asked about how to handle Iran and the possibility of a military strike, Halevy pushed instead for diplomatic resolutions, urging the audience that we must all beware of any “unintended consequences” that could result from our actions.

This is, indeed, an important lesson for anyone, including social entrepreneurs, who attempts to actively make a difference in the lives of others. Although the majority of social entrepreneurs have genuinely good intentions, in any form of development work we must always be conscious that we are usually imposing our subjective notions of development on individuals that might have a quite different view on the subject.

5. Jonathan Fenby – “It is cheaper to pay a fine than to install expensive ecofriendly machinery.”

Granted, Jonathan Fenby was referring to China when he said this, but the point remains the same: there is a discrepancy between the affordability of clean technology and the price that governments place on pollution.

Perhaps this lesson would be more appropriately aimed at governments that do not adequately account for the external costs of pollution. However, as entrepreneurs, it is not our job to change government policy, per say, but rather to work within the framework laid out by the government to produce goods that are price competitive and profitable. So take Fenby’s statement as a lesson that there is still work to be done, that these challenges can only be solved with innovation and entrepreneurship, and, to get a little narcissistic, that whoever comes up with the solution will not only change the world but will make a killing doing it.

6. Ronnie Screwvala – “There is tremendous opportunity in rural India.”

Of course, rural India is not where Screwvala made his fortunes. But selling his television company to Disney for a mere $1.4 billion did allow him to refocus his energy on the growing social issues in the country. He founded the Swades Foundation and turned his focus to social entrepreneurship.

This one doesn’t need much explaining. After spending the last few years focused solely on social entrepreneurship in rural India, Screwvala has discovered the immense potential it holds. Water, sanitation, healthcare, education, and agriculture are in high demand. Social entrepreneurs have already entered these markets, but you can take Screwvala’s point as a reminder that the opportunity there remains abundant.

7. Steven Cowley – “Nuclear fusion is the future of clean energy (but we do need to develop other sources).” 

It was easy to be convinced by Steven Cowley’s talk that nuclear fusion is indeed the future of clean energy. In his talk, titled “Fusion and the Energy Hunt: Can we Imitate the Sun?” he described a project currently in development in Southern France that essentially creates a miniature sun on earth and harnesses the immense amount of energy it releases.

The lesson here is not to begin research and development on nuclear fusion techniques; this is, as Cowley noted, extremely difficult to do, so we should probably leave that to the guys with the technology and the means to do it. However, Cowley did note that other resources such as solar and wind also need to be developed for our energy security. The problem, he noted, is that at current rates of consumption the fossil fuels we rely on will barely last us until the end of the century. Nuclear fusion will likely not be a viable source until the middle of the century, and even then the question remains of whether it will be price competitive with other sources. When the time comes, however, its competitors should not be the dirty, unsustainable sources that we currently rely on. Instead, they should be clean sources like solar and wind, which are being developed and proliferated by social entrepreneurs across the world.

Photo by Daniel Oxenhandler – doxmtn.jux.com

8. Marcus Du Sautoy – “Not every series has a pattern.”

For those like Marcus Du Sautoy who believe that everything in the world can be explained by mathematics, it might not be too much of a stretch to take a lesson from a talk about prime numbers and apply it to business. Creating a sustainable business, after all, involves a bit of fortune telling, and to see the future you must be able to recognize when something represents a pattern, which repeats in a predictable way, rather than a series, which is finite and unpredictable.

Industry trends, for instance, typically represent series’, and not patterns, because eventually fads die out, prices change, resources become exhausted. We saw what happened when people took an extended rise in housing prices as a pattern in the mid 2000s. The rise in prices turned out to be nothing but series of increases, and the resulting volatility led to crisis. Social entrepreneurs, by addressing people’s needs rather than wants, by seeking sustainability not just from a financial standpoint but from an environmental standpoint as well, seem in this case to be more mathematically sound. Nonetheless, given the difficulty of predicting the future, Du Sautoy’s lesson remains an important one for all innovators.

9. Ben Hammersley – “We’ve entrusted our future to those who are confused by the present.”

Ben Hammersley, editor of Wired, freelance journalist for the BBC, and founder of Dangerous Precedent, was, in this case, referring to governments who do not fully understand the impact that the emergence of the internet has had on their ability to govern. I think Hammersley would agree that the lesson could be applied to business as well. In fact, perhaps even more so, given the growing influence business has on our lives not only in terms of economic impact, but also in terms of its increasing ability to influence politics. We must, therefore, ask ourselves the question: do these businesses really know what’s best for us and for our futures?

In many cases, the answer is probably yes. Businesses do survive, after all, by supplying what we as consumers demand. However, as issues arise over fair wages, resource exploitation, pollution, community displacement, and so on, it becomes clear that the answer is not always in the affirmative. As more people begin to ask themselves this important question, social enterprise begins to make a lot more sense. In fact, taken in a broad sense, social enterprise might very well be the institution best positioned to care for our future based on present needs.

10. Think.

If nothing else, the conference last weekend in Goa remained true to its name and provided a lesson that not just social entrepreneurs, but everyone, can benefit from: simply, think. Thinking is what makes us human, and yet it seems a process that is far too often left out of our decision-making. What results is a favorite cliché, namely, that history repeats itself. But perhaps the cliché should be instead taken as a self-fulfilling prophecy, since often history repeats itself only because we as humans continue to make the same mistakes and refuse to learn from them.

Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” At THiNK we saw individuals from around the world who have acted upon this notion. Social entrepreneurs, too, seem to have grasped it. They have witnessed the shortfalls of government policy and traditional business and have taken a new approach, intent on not remaking the mistakes of the past. Now, it seems the ball is in the consumer’s court. Will we continue to make the same mistakes, or will we demand more out of the institutions that in essence control our futures? Think about it.




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