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Starting Up, , , , — November 30, 2010 11:00 — 32 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.

32 Comments

  1. @renjie says:

    "In fact, to give my teammates here at the Unreasonable Institute an opportunity to be excellent, I routinely take credit for their work."

    Had me laughing with this line… excellent post, thanks for sharing!

  2. David Hu says:

    First off, I’d like to say that this post is remarkable. I have very little experience as a social entrepreneur, but both intuitively and logically, all of these traits seem absolutely essential. Regarding the 1st trait – wilingness to self-correct – I really like Randy Komisar’s words:

    “Plans are too often a straightjacket for innovation. They are built on dreams and assumptions. Without more, they are likely to fail…”

    I once sat in on a keynote speech by Leonard Schlesinger, President of Babson College (great school for entrepreneurship), and among the ideas I picked up was something along the lines of “fail fast, fail cheap, and learn from those failures.” Which is exactly what it means to course-correct. Failure is GOOD, if you learn from it and change.

    Regarding the 3rd trait, again I’m going to share some ideas I got from Mr. Schlesinger’s keynote speech. He said that entrepreneurs (social entrepreneurs are certainly entrepreneurs) not only find opportunity, but they MAKE opportunity. He spoke of the limits of the scientific method once you enter highly uncertain territory, and how at a certain point all you have left is YOU.

    That is, you must use what Emerson called “genius” – the ability to recognize that what is true for yourself is true for everyone This involves inductive reasoning – extrapolating from personal experience to craft a solution that will fit everyone’s needs. And that’s what breaking free from established structure is all about.

    I could definitely go on about the other traits, but I feel that they stand very strongly by themselves…

    Lastly, a little about me: I am a college dropout currently sleeping on a friend’s couch and working on a social venture with 3 students from Olin College and 1 from Babson. Our goal: help smart driven college students struggling with depression – the “motivated depressed” – overcome the debilitating adversity that is depression.

    To that end, I’ve started a depression blog (w/a very unique take), and in doing so invested half of my life savings to purchase the domain name:

    NeverSayNever.net

    Check it out! If you like it, please help spread the word!

    I’m applying for the Unreasonable Institute too, so hopefully I’ll get to know some of you in person soon!

    Best,
    David

    • That's a phenomenal, thoughtful, and wonderful comment David! We are really looking forward to receiving your application – I can't wait to learn all about Never Say Never! I keep seeing incredible bits of wisdom from Randy Komisar and recently ordered his book "Getting to Plan B" recommended by Dennis Whittle, Global Giving Founder, an interview we did with him here a few weeks ago. Have you read it?

      Also, generally speaking, I love quotations and very deeply appreciate your integration of thoughts from a variety of scholarly gentlemen in your comment!

      • David Hu says:

        Thanks for the kind and encouraging words Teju! Appreciation is always appreciated! Especially when you're not in school and don't have grades, which serve a kind of silly function sometimes, but still validate you in a strangely egotistical way (hope I'm not stepping on any toes here)…

        I actually have not read Komisar's "Getting to Plan B." A friend of mine told me about it, and I immediately looked it up, jotted down some notes about it, and put it on my list. Unfortunately I'm a little short on spending money these days, and it's too new to have hit the library shelves. This may be for the best, though, since this way I won't get to do what I probably instinctively would have done – babbled all about it and spoiled it for you.

        I have read "The Monk and the Riddle" though, also by Randy Komisar, and that was fantastic! If you haven't read it, I definitely recommend you check it out! He talks about the limited use of business plans in that one too – he says they exist simply to show that the founders of a venture had the intelligence and foresight to think about the consequences of their actions – that they at least thought about what they were getting into. It seems to me that entrepreneurship is more about rolling up the sleeves and getting things done than talking about them and planning to get things done, right? (not to marginalize planning or being able to express your ideas, of course)

        I hope you enjoy "Getting to Plan B" when you get it! Let me know how it turns out!

        Best,
        David

  3. Tyler says:

    David – great reply my man! I love your thoughts.

    Also, I love this commercial of MIchael Jordan on failure… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45mMioJ5szc

    Tyler from the Unreasonable Institute.

  4. That's a phenomenal, thoughtful, and wonderful comment David! We are really looking forward to receiving your application – I can't wait to learn all about Never Say Never! I keep seeing incredible bits of wisdom from Randy Komisar and recently ordered his book "Getting to Plan B" recommended by Dennis Whittle, Global Giving Founder, an interview we did with him here a few weeks ago. Have you read it?

    Also, generally speaking, I love quotations and very deeply appreciate your integration of thoughts from a variety of scholarly gentlemen in yours!

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    hello everyone, i am searching for a research topic on entrepreneurship. please i need a very interesting topic for my final year project.

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