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Starting Up, , , , — November 30, 2010 11:00 — 66 Comments

6 Characteristics of Successful Social Entrepreneurs

David Bornstein’s How to Change the World features one of my favorite syntheses of the traits social entrepreneurs require to achieve success. Bornstein conducted extensive research, surveying countless social entrepreneurs across the world to determine what sets apart good social entrepreneurs from “highly successful” social entrepreneurs. Here are the six characteristics that set excellent social entrepreneurs apart:

Willingness to Self-Correct. Elnor Rozenrot of Innosight Ventures told us in the very first interview for this blog that 90% of successful ventures start out with the wrong business plan. The ones that succeed, therefore, must alter course. “It takes a combination of hard-headedness, humility, and courage to stop and say, ‘This isn’t working’ or ‘Our assumptions were wrong,’ particularly when your funding is contingent on carrying out a preauthorized plan. However, the entrepreneur’s inclination to self-correct stems from the attachment to a goal rather than to a particular approach or plan” (p. 234).

Willingness to Share Credit. “There is no limit to what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit,” explains Bornstein. One of the best examples I’ve heard comes from Ashoka Fellow of the Year David Kuria of Kenya, Founder of IkoToilet. Kuria built hygienic and affordable toilets for the 1 million slumdwellers of Kibera (a district of Nairobi, Kenya) but found that government regulations would make it difficult to expand his efforts. So he put the City Council of Nairobi’s logo on all Ikotoilets he constructed, which made people feel like the government was responding to their needs. The government was happy to take the credit and became very supportive of Kuria’s Ikotoilet, lifting barriers for expansion. In fact, to give my teammates here at the Unreasonable Institute an opportunity to be excellent, I routinely take credit for their work.

Willingness to Break Free of Established Structure. The word “entrepreneur” comes from French, originally meaning “to take into one’s own hands.” Excellent social entrepreneurs, therefore, do not depend on traditional avenues for creating social impact (e.g. government, religious institutions) and blaze their own paths for creating impact.

Willingness to Cross Disciplinary Boundaries. Highly successful social entrepreneurs not only escape established structures, they also combine thinking and resources from different disciplines to achieve their intended goal. “Indeed,” explains Bornstein, “one of the primary functions of the social entrepreneur is to serve as a kind of social alchemist: to create new social compounds; to gather people’s ideas, experiences, skills, and resources in configurations that society is not naturally aligned to produce” (p. 236).

Willingness to Work Quietly. Many social entrepreneurs are recognized only after working for years on their ideas in relative obscurity. Bornstein cites a a thought from Jean Monnet, who orchestrated the European Unification: there are those who want to “do something” and those who want to “be someone.” Those few who create deep impact more often fall into the former category.

Strong Ethical Impetus. Highly-successful Social entrepreneurs aren’t fueled by a drive to become famous or build a fortune, but a desire to restore justice in society, to address social problems. And this motivation comes down to a clear sense of what is right and what is wrong. This “ethical impetus” is not only evident in the work of successful social entrepreneurs, but also in how they live their lives.


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I want to live in a world where every human being can be the master of their own fate, unbound by the chains of poverty, oppression, or injustice.