How I Became a Social Entrepreneur
Strategies for following one's social entrepreneurial bliss.
In the spring of 2001, I had just moved to California and took a temporary administrative job at the Stanford Graduate School of Business’s Center for Social Innovation. The two best things about that job were the people I worked with and the exposure to the amazing conferences and discussions that happened so frequently on campus. I remember first hearing the term “social entrepreneurship” in a lecture in Bishop Auditorium during my lunch break; I was instantly intrigued. I wanted to be a social entrepreneur!
But doing what, exactly? I had no idea. The motivation, values, and energy were all there, but the specific context was missing. This was a problem. You can’t be a social entrepreneur without, well, a specific idea to implement. I felt like someone who wanted to be an author but had no idea what the book should be about, or someone who dreamt of going to the Olympics but hadn’t chosen a sport.
So my task became choosing a context, and finding my one, specific mission. At least I wasn’t starting completely from scratch. I’d always known I wanted to do something to alleviate poverty, and to think globally about doing so. I tried to absorb everything about international development, poverty alleviation, and the like.
I began digging, searching, reading, reflecting, journaling—just trying to figure out what in the world I could do to make an impact on poverty. I kept files with titles like “dream jobs” and “social entrepreneurs” and “international development courses/programs.” I’d have at least three to four lunches or coffee dates a week with anyone who knew anything about poverty. I worked overtime, sometimes doing extra projects (or entire extra jobs) to see more, learn more, absorb more, more quickly. Even while at Stanford, I had a second job evenings and weekends, as a live-in “house mom” and manager of New Creation Ministries in East Palo Alto, a home for underprivileged teenage moms and their kids. It was a whirlwind, but boy, did I learn a lot!
A few years later, in the fall of 2003, I was no longer a temp, and was serving the GSB as a senior program manager in the Public Management Program. One evening, I stuck around after work to hear yet another speaker on campus. He was talking about something related to banking, which I knew nothing about, but apparently he worked with very poor entrepreneurs. It sounded like it could be up my alley, so I went.
The speaker that evening was Dr. Muhammad Yunus. Hearing his story changed my life. Something clicked. This sounded like a fit. This was my context. I wanted to figure out how to contribute to the work of microfinance.
In his November 2007 blog entry highlighting “Six Lessons of Kiva,” Guy Kawasaki references this time in my life:
“Bank on unproven people. What would the ideal background be of the founder of Kiva? Investment banker from Goldman Sachs? Vice president of the World Bank? Vice president of the Peace Corps? Vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation? Partner at McKinsey? How about temporary administrative assistant at the Stanford business school? Because that’s how Jessica started her quest. The spark that lit the fire was a speech by Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and Nobel Peace Prize winner.”
It’s true—I was, for all intents and purposes, “unproven.” But, that was OK, because I’d been quietly preparing. When Dr. Yunus came to campus, my ears and eyes and heart were open. I knew what else was out there in the social sector, and I knew that this was a beautiful fit for me. I was ready to take the next step.
Things happened quickly from that moment onward. I began to take very specific action, in a specific context (microfinance)—I didn’t just dream about it. A few months later, I quit my job at Stanford to join Village Enterprise Fund (VEF), a San Mateo-based nonprofit focusing on micro-enterprise development and training in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. I moved to East Africa to begin my VEF work, through which I met more than 100 entrepreneurs whose stories would inspire the creation of Kiva.
Kiva became my specific mission. From a handful of friends and family members lending $3,000 to seven entrepreneurs in Uganda, as of this blog entry, Kiva has facilitated nearly $40 million in loans from 330,000 lenders to 60,000 entrepreneurs worldwide.
A funny thing happened while we were building Kiva: I actually forgot about my initial obsession with the idea of being a social entrepreneur. Only retroactively have I been able to look back at the last few years and say, “Oh, yeah… I guess that happened!” My vision got specific. The tasks in front of me each day got specific. Those initial dreams about what I wanted to be, a social entrepreneur, led me to a specific mission for what I wanted to do, Kiva.
For anyone out there who finds themselves in a similar place—wanting to be a social entrepreneur, but not knowing where to focus or how to start—here are some ideas:
Learn: Read, research, write, etc. Go to lectures. Absorb whatever you can on the topics that interest you. Get an idea of what the issues are. Take a class or just make up your own little reading lists and assignments if you love structure.
Listen: Reach out to a real, specific, human being who could be your “customer” (someone whose problems you want to understand, and who you’d like to serve by addressing those problems). Listen very carefully. Learn as much as you can. Then, reach out to another person, then another, then another. (Read Paul Polak’s amazing book, Out of Poverty, for much more on this concept!)
Ask: As you start to amass questions and can’t find the answers yourself, reach out to people who might. Get their opinions, their insight, their advice. Learn how their organizations work, what problems they face, what challenges and successes they’ve had. A special note: There are many ways to be entrepreneurial and create significant social change without starting your own organization. Sometimes you can be more effective at doing the specific thing you want to do in the world by joining an existing group or project, and revolutionizing from within.
Jump: At a certain point, you just need to start pursuing what resonates with you. Follow it as best you can, wherever it leads. It’s OK if you don’t know what the next five steps are. It’s enough to take one step in the direction of your interest. Sometimes you can only find the second step after you’ve taken the first one.
Keep Dreaming: Kiva represents my wildest dream of what I wanted to do in the world. And it’s happening! I couldn’t be more thankful for this. But something else is happening too: The faster Kiva goes, the more it grows, and the more I’m convinced that other great changes are possible in the world. I hope never to stop dreaming, preparing, and being ready to see what’s next.
Jessica Jackley Flannery cofounded Kiva, the first peer-to-peer microlending Web site, and believes that microfinance, relationships, and stories are powerful tools for change. She holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.