Let’s start telling social entrepreneurial aspirants the truth and get those who support the field financially to acknowledge that staying power and relationship-building are ineluctable partners to innovation. Part two of a series.
Jeremy Hockenstein appears to embody one of those feel good stories we see a lot of these days: MBA becomes McKinsey consultant; looks for more meaningful work; founds a social enterprise, Digital Divide Data, which starts off training Cambodians in tech and workplace skills in the context of an outsourcing business that pays the bills; wins a $1 million award from Skoll Foundation; becomes a perennial invitee at Skoll World Forum. “You too can be Jeremy Hockenstein” is the subliminal message where the social entrepreneur tribe gathers, pulsing through conferences in Oxford, San Francisco, New York, Berlin, and Rio; at hackathons and start-up weekends; and, of course, in the co-work hubs springing up like toadstools in rainmaker forests.
Here are a couple more data points about Jeremy. He’s been at it for 12 years. He’s not endured privation, but he’s not living a McKinsey consultant life either. Today, Digital Divide Data has expanded its operations from Cambodia to Laos and Kenya. It employs 1,000 people in those countries. The Skoll money is long (and well) spent. The social enterprise is succeeding, but it’s a long haul; Jeremy spends a lot of time flying coach class between Phnom Penh, Vientiane, Nairobi, and New York, where he has two small kids. It’s a grind, and it shows no signs of being anything but.
I’ve known Jeremy for 7 of those 12 years. If there’s a word for him, it is “centered.” He doesn’t get flustered; he is passionate and witty, but level. He seems like he really, really likes what he does—enough to fly those trips for twelve years and counting.
He’s critical, in his level way, about what some increasingly see as a social enterprise echo chamber that encourages a short-term, quick-fix mentality toward working with the poor and addressing the causes of poverty. He told me:
I do think the focus on scale and speed can often be unhelpful. Of course, it is good to push everyone to think about the sustainability and potential scope of innovations, but there is often a focus on finding new solutions, rather than continuing to grow existing ones. So there’s an incentive to start something new; you have a much better chance of being recognized. There’s a bias toward innovations that help lots of people to a small degree, rather than innovations that have a deep impact on a smaller population.
Mathias Craig, who I mentioned in my last post, started the much-lauded blueEnergy social enterprise to address clean water and sustainability issues in Central America. He was even more pointed in his analysis:
What alarms me is the trend that everything has to be new, fast, financially profitable in the transaction with the end user, and perpetually sustainable.
There's a limit to what is productive in terms of revenue-generating business models for different situations. I see that we face a myriad of very different challenges in society, and we have a spectrum of models and solutions—a toolkit if you will—where we have to be smart about which tool to apply in which situation. Alas, a lot of it is not sexy.
So much of creating real, meaningful, lasting impact is just the grind, the determination, the follow-through …
What Mathias says strikes me as just common sense. The internet has transformed social interactions and speeded up a lot of transactions, but it hasn’t yet speeded up deep changes in consciousness and cultural practice. Or maybe it has speeded up those deep changes so that they will happen in mere decades and not epochs (or never). I’m bullish about the changes that technological enablement can facilitate, but it’s just wishful thinking to expect that the pace of change will accommodate itself to career hops and resume-building. Social change is still a marathon, and you need to be running for the right reasons. Going back to Mathias:
The fact is, those of us [who] have dedicated significant time to this sector get something very enriching out of it. Not money, but a deep sense of purpose and connection. If you feel you are sacrificing to work in this sector, then you probably shouldn’t be here.
For Mathias, unrealistic expectations end up:
… doing a huge disservice to young people entering the social entrepreneurship space; funders looking for effective ways to spend their money; and, ultimately, the poor we purport to serve, who end up being experimented on ad nauseam by ill-conceived interventions without the staying power to deliver results.
Lack of local contextual understanding, poor choice of technology, lack of training, lack of follow up, etc., leads most efforts to fail. There is a loud chorus for the social sector to study best practices more, to collaborate more, to share more. But when you look at the incentive structures in the funding process, you see they are totally out of line with this.
They are indeed. Innovations that promise quick, measurable impact and sustainability within a few years can find investment or philanthropic funding. But how about the dry work of capacity-building? Of collaboration? As Jeremy put it, “There aren't a lot of awards for having expanded someone else's innovation.”
This can change! We can start telling social entrepreneurial aspirants the truth about the career upon which they are embarking. And those who support the field financially can acknowledge that staying power and relationship-building are ineluctable partners to innovation.
Here’s to the day when there is an award for expanding someone else’s innovation and other ones for building something deeply meaningful over a long time.