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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.


imageJessica 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.

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COMMENTS

  • BY Kirk Hanson

    ON September 4, 2008 04:22 PM

    Great story and testimonial on how you created a revolution through your passion.  Jessica is an inspiration to all of us.

  • Hi Jessica,

    Thank you so much for the inspiring and encouraging story! I definitely can relate to your early years of searching for that ‘context’. About 4 years ago, I caught the bug to make a difference in our world and left my high-tech job to work for World Vision Canada. And more recently, and more specifically, my interests turned towards supporting local entrepreneurs in developing countries with talented passionate MBAs. It’s funny how God can turn one’s world upside down for an amazing adventure…

    I’m currently serving as the EVP at MBAs Without Borders… I’d love to connect with you to learn about your GSB experience and what future holds for you at Kiva.

    Drop me a line when you have a chance smile

    Keep up the amazing work!~

    Cheers,
    John.

  • BY JiYoung Rhee

    ON September 6, 2008 07:51 PM

    Hi,

    I have been watching and congratulating Kiva and its accomplishments for the last two years and wanted to get connected with a person from Kiva.  Today my son sent me this link. 

    It is a wonderful story you shared here, enbaling a dream/concept into a tangible work and ministry for many people from all background.  We thank you for that.  Plus kiva has grown not only with quantity (members, loans and MEs…in many countries) but also in issue of integrity. 

    I have been doing off-line MF projects at various countries since 2002, learning and implementing different models from various orgs while working full time as a sw engineer.  I have been promoting this ME/MED ministry/work in my Korean/American community via newspapers and seminars. 

    I would like to get connect with you to share what’s next for another sets of unlimited possibilities.  My son graduated Standford 2005 and my husband also went there.  We all are very proud of Kiva team.  It will be great to get connected for more integrated, holistic restoration of all!  Please send me a reply!

  • Jessica,

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. Its defintely an on time message I needed to see. And good to be encouraged that people who start social entrepreneuship projects aren’t always equipped with a trust fund and a good heart. That we can start where we are and do what we can do. I am inspired. Now trying to sustain that inspiration!

    Thanks!

  • BY chris macrae

    ON September 11, 2008 02:54 PM

    Have you kept connected with Dr Yunus? I cannot quite reconcile my 2 visits to bangladesh with how similar and different kiva is

  • Hi Jessica,

    Thank you for your sharing. I wish more social entrepreneurs would do the same.

    I am a retired management consultant and have been having a second, more rewarding, career promoting social entrepreneurship in HK and China. I always think that stories like these are the best inspiration for would-be social entrepreneurs.

    I know that you will be speaking at the HK SE Summit this November and I look very much forward to that. What I would like to do is to leverage your visit to inspire more people in HK and China. Will let you know about my plan in due course. In the meantime, if you have any materials (videos, books, articles, etc) about the work of Kiva on the ground level, please let me know. I would love to use them to inspire my circle of friends over here.

    KK Tse,
    Co-convener,
    Hong Kong Social Entrepreneurship Forum

  • Jessica Jackley Flannery's avatar

    BY Jessica Jackley Flannery

    ON September 13, 2008 04:21 PM

    Thank you all for reading, and for the kind words.  I’m so glad hearing about my experience is helpful.  Wishing you all the best in your respective endeavors!  (And Kirk: thank you for being a support and inspiration from the very beginning!)

  • Hi Jessica,

    I am K K Tse, Co-convener of the Hong Kong Social entrepreneurship Forum.

    I am editing a book in Chinese onten leading social entrepreneurs in Hong Kong and would like to include a translation of your piece How I became a Social Entrepreneur into the concluding chapter.
    The book will be published in Hong Kong in November this year, just in time for your visit here.

    Please let me have your permission by sending me a note to this email address:

    .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

  • BY David Hopkins

    ON November 11, 2008 10:02 AM

    We’ve loved working with you Jessica, and hope all your fans will watch Kiva in action in this exciting 3-minute video called The Tactics of Hope - Join the Social Entrepreneur Movement!

    Kiva is also featured on http://www.TacticsofHope.org

  • BY David Hopkins

    ON November 11, 2008 10:03 AM

    Here is the video with KIVA!!!!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MokRURNnSC0

  • Habeeb ur Rahman's avatar

    BY Habeeb ur Rahman

    ON January 15, 2009 04:54 PM

    Dear Jessica,

    Thank you for sharing the recipe. I liked the simple and straight forward steps that you have outlined for one who like to be a social entrepreneur.

        Learn, Listen, Ask, Jump and Keep Dreaming.

    I have been watching KIVA growing day be day with its track record of loan paybacks that is so true of micro-finance, without the corruption layers of corporates.

    KIVA also proves the fact that across countries, ethnicity, religion, color and creed, human beings are TRUST WORTHY.

    Your efforts, KIVA’s results and your story ..... are enough to INSPIRE anyone who find themselves in similar situation, with an urge to bring a change, to do something that would improve the life of so many in the world.

    Best Regards,

    Habeeb ur Rahman
    Having similar dream, Nurturing similar vision

    Riyadh, KSA

  • BY Stephanie S. Berry

    ON January 15, 2009 05:10 PM

    Thanks for sharing, Jessica!

    I have been working with the Women’s Business Institute for over 5 years now, and am finishing my masters in Non Profit Management (through which we read a lot about Mr. Yunus).  And I remember reading about Kiva somewhere…maybe on Springwise?

    It’s great to hear about your experience…I’d like permission to post this article on our website: http://www.mujeryempresas.org.

    Thank you!  BTW…I signed up on http://www.tacticsofhope.org!
    Stephanie

  • BY Ken Beller

    ON January 15, 2009 05:58 PM

    Jessica,

    A great article and an even better story… Kudos to you and all the people who worked so hard to make Kiva such a success…

    My wife Heather and I recently released a book called, Great Peacemakers, in March 2008 and consider you a great peacemaker in your own right… For more info, see http://www.GreatPeacemakers.com

    The book has already won 10 awards and is being taught in middle schools, high schools, and colleges and universities all across the country, including Brandeis and George Washington University.  What we find is that almost every teacher in public schools that sees the book wants to use it in their classes—as it has a comprehensive study guide (that we give away for free) that meets U.S. National Standards and guidelines in 14 areas such as English Language, Social Studies, Service Learning, Multicultural Education, etc. 

    The problem is that most public school teachers have a hard time getting funding to buy the books, even with very generous discounts we give.

    We are working on what we call an Adopt-A-Class program so that they can obtain funding from many individuals, much like Kiva. We have some ideas on how to progress forward on this, but I would love to speak with you further about it if possible and get more of your insights into how to best accomplish this.

    Please keep up the good work… and again, I would very much appreciate speaking with you concerning this if possible so that we could get it off the ground faster and more effectively and spread peace to more youth of the world. 

    Warmest regards,

    Ken

  • BY Mike McNulty

    ON January 16, 2009 07:12 AM

    Hi Jessica,

    Very nice story. Its good to put a face to an organization as well. I’m sure that your work has had the same effect on others as Dr. Yunus’ speech has had on you. I visited the Stanford GSB for an entrepreneurship conference in the winter of 2007 when I was caught up in the social networking site craze. Since then I have done a lot of reflection and have found myself on a similar path to “social entrepreneurship” as you: taking an unglamorous position in Brazil with a world leading organization in sustainable development (my area of interest) and seeing what comes along (I don’t think it was coincidence that you were working a temporary administrative one of the world’s top schools… it’s almost like you were taking cues from Good Will Hunting.) Anyway, I have just kept pushing and in the past few months I have finally found what I think is my context. I am calling sustainability intelligence: business intelligence with triple bottom line accounting based on the GRI standards. I want to make it widely available to disseminate the ability to make environmental, social and economic decisions instead relying on the few who have the right knowledge.

    That said, I had heard about microfinance a few years ago but wasn’t able to find any online lending platforms that allowed Canadians to lend. When I learned about Kiva last fall I decided to donate to it and promote it on one of my blogs in support of poverty week.
    http://brazilmike.blogspot.com/2008/10/microloan.html
    http://brazilmike.blogspot.com/2008/10/microloan-part-2.html

    I think that empowering people to make a difference is much more important (and sustainable) than individual efforts where only the one individual gets to feel good about his/herself. Thanks for making this possible!

  • BY Mike McNulty

    ON January 19, 2009 01:17 PM

    Hey Jessica,

    Just noticed that you will be making a keynote appearance at the Mesh Conference in Toronto this year. I’ve been going to it since it started. I think you’ll enjoy the crowd there if you can put up with Canadian humor for a couple of days.

  • Christine's avatar

    BY Christine

    ON February 7, 2009 09:33 PM

    Hi Jessica,
    I remember when you joined Stanford (I graduated in ‘02) and your enthusiasm for the school and reaching out to students then. I am so happy and impressed with the great work you have done since then and have been an ethusiastic Kiva supporter.  Congratulations!  best, Christine

  • Terry Cumes's avatar

    BY Terry Cumes

    ON February 25, 2009 11:27 PM

    Thanks for the great article Jessica! Where do we sign up for your blog so we can get regular nuggets of inspiration? grin

  • howard zugman's avatar

    BY howard zugman

    ON June 12, 2009 12:09 AM

    Jessica,

    Thank you so much for taking the path that you did and persisting.  I have been since JAN 2008 and plan to be for the rest of my life an active KIVA-ite.  My light bulb moment occurred the moment I learned about Kiva.  I just instantly knew that it was “right”.  I talk up Kiva to anyone who will listen and am happy to do so.

    Thanx again

  • Heather Heine's avatar

    BY Heather Heine

    ON April 12, 2010 02:22 PM

    Hi Jessica,

    Reading your article hit the nail on the head for areas of contribution I want to make in health care research using social networking media and entrepreneurship.  I was wondering if you could help me with information about how to get more involved in Social Entrepreneurship/Health Care approaches.  Is the 2 year MBA the best way to do this?  I am currently working on completing my MD/PhD and am not sure more education is necessarily always the best way to get contributions moving in the ‘real world’.  I will be moving to San Francisco within the next 12 months to begin some of this work.  Do you know if any courses offered by faculty in the Social Entrepreneurship program allow you to audit or attend without doing the formal 2 year MBA program?

    Thanks for any help.

    Cheers
    Heather

  • Bhuwan K.C's avatar

    BY Bhuwan K.C

    ON November 18, 2010 11:02 AM

    hi jessica,
    Exactly, I find myself in the initial stage of you, when I heard you and read this article. I always only wanted to be an entrepreneur and social worker, but not knowing how?
    I watched your presentation on TED and instantly that was such a huge inspiring thing for me, and luckily i get to read this article of yours, and i just couldn’t rest without thanking you for how the story of Kiva, microlending and moreover stories of help and support with love and compassion with respect and dignity has inspired me and many others.
    Its not the money, but a beautiful heart that’s needed to make this world more beautiful.
    god bless,
    Thank You

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