Social entrepreneurship

What Millennials Are Doing With Millions In Government Funds To Reclaim Their Communities (Forbes)

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Over on Forbes, I wrote about the new civic movement of participatory budgeting, and how youth are making decisions about how to spend city budgets to improve their communities. I interviewed fellow UChicago alumna and SIPA professor Hollie Russon Gilman for the piece; she’s the author of a new book on the subject, Democracy Reinvented.

Check out the article here.

What Jury Dury Taught Me About Government Innovation

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Photo of long voting line via NY Daily News

Originally posted on Medium. 

I left my California beach town vacation early to return to frozen New York for the democratic tradition and right of jury duty. For two days, I sat in a stale room with intermittent wifi with over 100 citizens from across socio-economic backgrounds. Unfortunately, what should’ve been a privileged and proud citizen experience turned out to be a futile, inefficient, and outdated process. I say this not to diminish the importance of diverse citizen juries, but to acknowledge the frustration I saw and heard from my fellow citizens in the room, and experienced myself. At the end of the second day, my peers and I cheered and sighed in relief as we heard that we are free from serving on a jury for the next several years. I was at once thrilled that I was done with what was a dreaded and annoying process, and saddened that most citizens would leave the court house with even less confidence or interest in their government.

“As a country, we haven’t invested in or changed the ways we engage with democracy; we’re interacting with 20th century institutions in the 21st century.”

A graduate student in public policy, I’ve been involved with government since high school. What struck me as I sat in the jury room is that while I’ve interacted with the government in many ways as an employee, student, and engaged citizen, for many in the room, this is one of the only times they’ll interact with the government this year, and they were left sorely disappointed in how it functions. (more…)

Let’s Rethink Social Enterprise: It’s a Framework of Values

LJIZlzHgQ7WPSh5KVTCB_TypewriterThis blog post has been sitting in my drafts for almost two years now. I keep coming back to it every few months–questioning its relevance, comparing it to the rapid evolution of thinking about social enterprise that has taken place since I first wrote this, asking friends for feedback, and then deciding I’m not comfortable sharing it. While our thinking about what “social enterprise” means has certainly evolved over the past few years, there is still room to question its meaning and trajectory. More and more, I’ve been gravitating towards the notion of “organizational values” and away from entities and missions. I wrote a bit about that here, but I wanted to FINALLY share this post below, as a draft, open for feedback and improvement.

Readers: What do you think? What’s missing? Is this even relevant? Are organizations adopting these values, and would those that don’t traditionally think of themselves as social enterprises want to advertise themselves as such if they aligned with the framework below? Add in the comments or message me. I really want to hear what you think and have your help in shaping this concept further. 


“That’s a non-profit, it’s not a social enterprise.” People make this comment all too often. The definition of the term “social enterprise” widely varies, but what is often most misunderstood is that social enterprises as entities can be for-profit, non-profit, or a hybrid, and I argue in this piece, even governmental.

We should separate the legal formation of social enterprise from the values and goals of social enterprise. Let’s think of social enterprise as a set of values for an organization. In this sense, social enterprise is a framework of values for change, and we can encourage all organizations to adopt this framework.

What is the social enterprise framework of values?   (more…)

Why I Chose an MPA Program

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Columbia University

“The path is made by walking,” writes poet Antonio Machado. My path has certainly been a winding one–leading from Capitol Hill to a military analysis think tank, from ed-tech in India to a design school in New York. Two weeks ago, I began my newest endeavor–graduate school. A Master in Public Administration degree wasn’t always part of the plan, but after accounting for my experiences and interests over the years, it now seems like it was inevitable.

I’ve been interested in public service and international affairs since childhood, but as I made a shift towards the world of social entrepreneurship after college (which I explained in this essay two years ago) I became determined to pursue an MBA. Business school has become the graduate school of choice for those working in social enterprise. The good and bad (and expensive) reasons to attend any graduate school aside, the thinking goes that a strong understanding of business will enable better business models and management for social change initiatives. As you’ll see on this blog and others, there is a lot of truth to that notion, and many smart, impactful social entrepreneurs with an MBA.

But while working with social businesses in India and New York, I was continually struck by my own lack of knowledge about socioeconomics, despite a BA in Political Science. And I saw how business and its tools–without a dedication to iterating on theories of social change and understanding socioeconomic dynamics–cannot alone solve the complex problems we face. As I explain in this Huffington Post article, “a social entrepreneur can run the most transparent, well-managed, profitable social enterprise in the world, and still not be solving the social problem their business is founded upon.” Furthermore, after seeing social enterprises in action, I realized that policy and social justice, and integration of social initiatives with policy change, is more important than ever. (more…)

Why Every Social Entrepreneur Needs to Read This Book (Huffington Post)

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Originally posted on HuffPost Impact.

Paulo Freire, author of the seminal 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, saw the world not as a given reality, but as “a problem to be worked on and solved.” That mindset is a quality we attribute to the greatest social entrepreneurs. Yet, when so many well-intentioned social ventures globally seem to leave individuals dependent on aid instead of empowering them, Freire’s book should be required reading for every social entrepreneur.

While many in the social enterprise space are now excited by what we call “empowerment non-profits,” “human-centered design,” and “co-creation,” Freire and others working in activism and participatory development have been advocating for working with, and not for, the oppressed for more than 50 years. Furthermore, our culture of glorifying the social entrepreneur through awards, praise, and aspiration is contrary to the values of liberation. Based on the understanding of oppression and liberation from Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the role of the social entrepreneur would not be to act as liberator of the oppressed, but to work with the oppressed in the liberation of themselves and their oppressors. (more…)

Resumes Matter

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In the spirit of trying new things and “building and shipping,” I recently launched a resume review and job search advice service that I hope to iterate and grow overtime as a side-business. Learn more and sign up here! 

How to Assess a Social Enterprise (Huffington Post)

My article originally posted on Huffington Post Impact. 

A friend transitioning from the corporate world to the social enterprise space recently asked me how to assess a social enterprise. How do we really know when an organization is doing quality work we should rally behind and having a real, positive impact, versus just using the right buzzwords?

The short answer is you can never really know. But there are a few aspects of a social enterprise, beyond their mission and approach, that you can critically examine before deciding to join or support one.

How do they talk about impact?

There are numerous ways to measure impact, and entire firms dedicated to doing so. There is no one “right” method, but the way a social enterprise talks about their impact may be an indicator of their operations and worldview.

Let’s say there’s a social enterprise that uses all the popularly accepted words about sustainable and holistic community development. And then when they talk about their impact they say, “We’ve built 100 schools in five countries in the past 10 years.” Maybe they have a video or slideshow of “people whose lives they’ve changed,” but not much more than general statements, and certainly nothing to prove sustainability or transparency. Maybe it’s just another case of Three Cups of Deceit. Or maybe they’re revolutionary, but how are we to know?

There is nothing wrong with statistics. They’re great. Here is how Educate!, a social enterprise operating in Uganda, talks about their impact:

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Getting Social Impact Advertising Right

You’ve seen this type of advertising so many times now that you’re desensitized to it. There’s a sad song playing in the background as you watch a slideshow of dehumanizing photos, while the narrator simplifies the issues and urges you to “make a difference.” You see it for charities supporting public health, orphanages, and even pets. You saw it in campaigns like KONY 2012. It’s known as “poverty porn.” There have been a number of clever video campaigns mimicking or combatting poverty porn.

But I haven’t come across anything as effective, funny, clever, or powerful as this 2012 ad from the Rainforest Alliance. It’s entertaining and relatable. What I love most though is that it has a strong and easy call to action at the end.

To learn more about storytelling for social impact that is not poverty porn, check out the work of the great team at Regarding Humanity.

On Measuring Impact

Two recent articles on measuring impact of social enterprises deserve close attention.

One article was in the Guardian, co-authored by Dr. Pathik Pathak and Zoe Schlag. Citing research they conducted in India, the authors explain that:

“Conventional social impact frameworks emphasise the need to isolate impact (what have you changed that you can prove you did alone?) but fail to ask how social entrepreneurs might scale impact through partnership. The whole notion of attribution is irredeemably flawed when it comes to making sense of the social economy and needs to be ditched in favour of something more attune to the dynamics of collaboration, partnership and exchange.”

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Question of the Day: Exploitation in Social Enterprise?

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about exploitation. How do we end exploitation in the workforce? In society? How do we build social good models that don’t continue to exploit individuals in a new way? How do we advertise and raise awareness about social missions without creating “poverty porn?”  Is exploitation in some form or another inevitable?

I came across this blog post that encapsulates some of my many questions and concerns quite well.

“Though we didn’t reach an agreement, this conversation did bring up very important ethical issues for social entrepreneurs. When creating a sustainable organization for BoP populations, are we creating a social enterprise or have we created a way to legalize social exploitation? As Talent would ask, “when you employ people from impoverish communities are you simply utilizing your access to cheap labor?” When financing poor entrepreneurs are you simply exploiting debtors? When providing micro-insurance to underserved populations are you simply exploiting the poor?”

Perhaps this is over thinking the issue too much. But I have many questions and doubts, and no answers.

What do you think? 

Why hasn’t TOMS Shoes changed?

A few weeks ago, I posted a (rather harsh) article on my Facebook wall about “the worst” international aid ideas. It sparked a lively debate among my friends about good intentions vs. bad ideas in aid, preventing and discouraging failure, and social good business models.

TOMS: Shoes For Tomorrow.

TOMS: Shoes For Tomorrow. (Photo credit: anita.marie)

TOMS Shoes is the most well-known example of bad aid with good intentions. I don’t have to go into the details about why because so many others have already raised great points. (If you are unfamiliar with the arguments, read those articles, then continue here.)

I want everyone to always be thinking about how to make the world a better place. So it’s great when someone comes up with a new social good initiative. But when you explore that idea, or maybe even pilot it, and learn that your idea isn’t having the kind of impact you were hoping for, it’s time to rethink the concept and pivot. As Sasha Dichter of Acumen Fund explains, the social sector should learn from Eric Ries–The Lean Startup author–and create a Build-Measure-Learn cycle to identify failures and pivot.

My main criticism of  TOMS and organizations like TOMS, beyond the negative consequences of their business model, is that after all of the public criticisms of TOMS, it has made no effort to change or pivot. TOMS could be more transparent about its opaque supply chain or even move its operations to local communities, or shift its model away from giving shoes for free to using profits to support local jobs, training, or schools. TOMS has a strong brand name with a large customer base. Imagine if they used their name recognition and community to raise awareness and serve as an example for how similar organizations can also improve.

Ultimately, TOMS is not an example of bad aid for its faults, but because it hasn’t attempted to change its ways. Public criticism of social good organizations like TOMS aren’t discouraging social entrepreneurship or preventing people from trying a risky new approach to make the world a better place; rather, it’s encouraging more thoughtful, intentional aid initiatives that revisit their model when they aren’t achieving impact or are potentially doing more harm than good.

I really enjoyed the debate on my Facebook wall and I believe this is a very important discussion that needs a lot of voices and opinions involved, so feel free to share your thoughts here! 

“Much of what we call social entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship is really just people approaching their work with a proactive outlook and in a socially responsible and engaged manner. If that’s the case, and we all think about how our work effects the world, we can all be “social entrepreneurs” and solve the small and big problems, evolve the industries we acknowledge are hurting the world and our people, and all live a more happy lifestyle. And so much of this comes back to the empowered individual- we need them everywhere.”

Via Samantha Smith

Forget Poverty – Let’s Talk About Business

This profile on Paul Polak by Cheryl Heller has some excellent advice. I highly recommend the whole article but I think this tip is especially important. 

“5. Think huge, and don’t be a victim of your emotions

Paul’s rule is that a business has to have the potential to reach 100 million people and generate at least $10 billion in sales in order to be worthwhile. Seeing that potential will make it real.

While passion and empathy draw people to help others they are anything but the secret to success. Hard-headed business strategy will go much further to change lives. Caring deeply about helping people should spur pragmatism, not romanticism.

There are practical lessons here for all involved: Don’t fall in love with your altruism when you don’t have a sustainable solution to poverty, and don’t fall in love with your new business idea unless it can really impact the world.”

Forget Poverty – Let’s Talk About Business