Stanford Social Innovation Review : Informing and inspiring leaders of social change


Social Entrepreneurship

Remembering Greg Dees

A reflection on the life of a social entrepreneurship pioneer.

J. Gregory Dees.

J. Gregory Dees, one of the pioneers of the field of social entrepreneurship, died December 20, 2013, at the age of 63. He was the editor of two books and dozens of articles on social entrepreneurship, including the seminal 1998 article, “The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship.” Dees was also the author of a number of articles in Stanford Social Innovation Review, including “Scaling Social Impact” (2004), “Cultivate Your Ecosystem” (2008), and “Toward an Open-Solution Society,” (2013).

Dees began his academic career at Yale School of Management, followed by appointments at Harvard Business School, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and lastly Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business where he was professor of the practice of social entrepreneurship when he passed away. Along the way he helped launch Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation (where Stanford Social Innovation Review was founded) and Duke’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE). In 2007, the Aspen Institute and Ashoka presented Dees with their first lifetime achievement award in social entrepreneurship education.

In addition to his academic roles, Dees served on the board of the Bridgespan Group and other organizations; chaired the World Economic Forum's Global Agenda Council for Social Innovation; served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Social Entrepreneurship and the Social Enterprise Journal; and was an entrepreneur in residence with the Kauffman Foundation.

In the following article, Beth Battle Anderson, one of Dees’ closest collaborators and the co-founder of CASE, reflects on Dees, the impact he had on her, and the impact he had on the field of social entrepreneurship.

“And who are you?” It was the inevitable question from the latest nurse or doctor to cycle through Greg Dees’s room during his extended stay in the hospital due to severe bleeding in his lungs and a subsequent stroke last fall. It was always an awkward moment, and I never did come up with an adequate response. Who really was I in relation to Greg Dees? And didn’t they realize how special this man was and the mark he made on so many lives and institutions, indeed on an entire field that he helped pioneer? Didn’t they know that they were in the room with the “father of social entrepreneurship as an academic field”? Of course they didn’t. And he wouldn’t have had it any other way. But I knew it. And I wished they had been lucky enough to know it, too. Had Greg been more himself, I would have joked with him about how famous he was and ribbed him about being “the Greg Dees” as I had so many times before. I tried it a couple of times when he seemed alert, but it didn’t quite seem to register, so I held onto the memories and hoped for the best.

What I came to believe during the two months that hospital staff asked me that question—Who are you in relation to Greg Dees?—was that I was the person who had benefitted the most from his brilliance, his humility, his kindness, and his generosity. When we first met, I was—at best—a middling student of his, yet he ultimately gave me the chance to be his teaching assistant and then his research assistant at Stanford University. As I learned from him, I helped him refine and edit his ideas; he gave me credit, recommended me to others, and insisted that I was listed as a full-fledged co-author on papers. We established the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at Duke University based entirely on his experience, reputation, and relationships, yet he was adamant that I was a co-founder and continued to bestow that title on me—and on himself—years after my departure. He was that rarest of mentors and colleagues, one who gave so much and required nothing in return; who selflessly and supportively let you go when the time was right; and who was always there when you needed advice, a confidence boost, or simply to share a laugh, a meal, or a drink with someone who knew you well and who you knew always had your best interests at heart.

But as I reflected further and heard from others who had story after story to share of all that Greg had meant to and done for them—the support he lent, guidance he gave, opportunities he created, doors he opened—I realized that I alone could not claim this special status. The true brilliance of Greg Dees was the incredible and broad impact he had on so many people and institutions. Yes, he had a brilliant and inquisitive mind and an incredible ability to frame ideas, make connections, and pose questions in new and insightful ways. And thus he could hold his own with academics across a multitude of disciplines while also adding value to social entrepreneurs across a range of fields. But what really set him apart was his empathy, his selflessness, and his humanity. Greg helped everyone feel smarter and special; helped everyone believe that they had talent and a role to play in this work; and helped everyone see some connection between his or her interests, skills, and passions and the exciting, emerging field he was a part of. Greg scaled his impact beyond his wildest dreams, beyond what he may have even fully grasped himself, by never having it be about advancing “Greg Dees” yet always making “Greg Dees” available to others—institutions and individuals alike.

Greg drew his inspiration from a lot of places. He especially loved movies. As I sat by his bed while he was sleeping one day, I remembered a time when he quoted Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets—when Nicholson compliments Helen Hunt with “You make me want to be a better man.” Yes, leave it to Greg to turn a famous pickup line into something worthy of discussion, and discuss it we did—what was at the root of that impulse, of wanting to be better for someone else? What engendered it? How could we tap into it, and channel it productively and sustainably? But what made me think of it in that moment was: Greg, you made us all want to be better people, truly the best versions of ourselves. Not only did you inspire that ambition, you showed us the path to doing so—by who you were, what you did, and how you did it. In your all too short life you helped generations of people find their passions, their careers, their philanthropic, academic, and entrepreneurial pursuits—truly, their place in the world. And you influenced the priorities and potential impact of academic institutions far and wide.

Our mutual Duke colleague and friend Tony Brown perhaps expressed it best on the day Greg died when he wrote, “The world has lost someone much more important than a social entrepreneurship thought leader; we have lost an extraordinarily kind, compassionate human being.” So true, and I’m not sure you could have one without the other, at least not one with such outsized impact.


Visit the memorial site for Greg Dees here.

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  • BY Allegra Jordan

    ON January 9, 2014 12:36 PM

    In 1991, I met Greg at HBS and took the social entrepreneurship class with Kash Rangan. In 2007 I called Greg and asked, “How can I get to work on social entrepreneurship in the Bay area?” Greg replied, “I’m now at Duke; come here and work at Duke to support the hospice movement & the global reconciliation movement.” I came and had a great time doing some wonderful work.

    But during this time my personal life fell apart. I was dumped by a long-term partner on Valentine’s Day! A year later - and with no romantic undertones -  Greg called me up and said, “I know what happened last year and I won’t let you have lunch by yourself on Valentine’s Day.” He took me to a nice lunch and we had a splendid feast. After he hugged me. It was the most life giving hug I think I’ve ever gotten.

    I’m in a beautiful and different place today because of Greg Dees. Thank you for letting us know even more about him! He was truly a gift to our world.

  • Joe McMahan's avatar

    BY Joe McMahan

    ON January 9, 2014 05:57 PM

    Greg Dees was the reason I attended the Fuqua School of Business, as is the case for many like-minded classmates who have become lifelong friends.  He was a truly extraordinary man who gave so much of himself to so many, purely for the sake of making the world a better place.  Beth’s observation of his brilliance, humility, and kindness is spot on.  Despite his myriad roles and unending obligations he would prioritize his students as if we had all the free time in the world.  He was a mentor, friend, and inspiration to so many and will be missed by all who knew him.

  • Matthew Rascoff's avatar

    BY Matthew Rascoff

    ON January 10, 2014 07:24 AM

    Thank you so much, Beth, for sharing these memories. Your piece is beautiful.

  • Julie J. 's avatar

    BY Julie J.

    ON January 10, 2014 11:30 AM

    This is a wonderful piece, thank you for sharing, Beth.

    Greg touched our minds and our hearts. His work will continue to inspire us to do better, to be better. Rest in Peace, Greg and may we continue on the path that you helped create.

  • Kayla B.'s avatar

    BY Kayla B.

    ON January 10, 2014 03:25 PM

    Like so many other students’, my life was greatly enlightened by the wonderful experience of having Greg Dees as my professor. I took his business school course as an elective while a somewhat disgruntled public interest law student at the same university. I found through him a world of would be do-gooders who thrived on optimism, creativity and impact. This was my tribe and Professor Dees so adeptly introduced me to it- it took me years to realize that joining it would have otherwise been very challenging.

    I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to study under him—and like so many will especially treasure his legacy.

  • Jackie VanderBrug's avatar

    BY Jackie VanderBrug

    ON January 11, 2014 08:03 PM

    Beth - Thanks for sharing this honest and heart-full reflection.  It is so consistent with everything I’ve heard about Greg.  And also with my much more limited experience of him.  One specific instance stands out.  I was at Duke to give a talk some years ago - and looked him up.  He suggested we have lunch - and over a fabulous two hour lunch he was so gracious and interested in what I was thinking about.  Having read his work before I went expecting to just listen - but he would have none of it.  Its a touchstone for me in how to be abundant with time.

  • Karen Doyle Grossman's avatar

    BY Karen Doyle Grossman

    ON January 15, 2014 12:02 PM

    Thank you, Beth.  I was very saddened to hear of Greg Dees’ passing.  He invited me to Duke to speak to his Social Entrepreneurship class several years ago.  He was such a kind host and a wonderful teacher!  He inspired the launch of Social Innovations at Mercy Corps, where I worked at the time, and helped many more people than he could have ever known.

  • Claudia Sangster 's avatar

    BY Claudia Sangster

    ON January 15, 2014 01:32 PM

    I did not personally know Greg but read much of his works.  I was very touched by Beth’s comments and those of others who have commented here.  What a remarkable man!

  • BY Mohit Mukherjee

    ON January 16, 2014 09:23 AM

    Thank you for this piece - it was inspiring. Even though I did not get to meet Prof. Dees, I have been using his articles in a course on Social Entrepreneurship at the University for Peace in Costa Rica. I am sure he has inspired and touched more people than he’d ever have imagined.

  • Robert D'Intino's avatar

    BY Robert D'Intino

    ON January 29, 2014 04:58 AM

    It is such a loss for us all to hear of Greg Dees’s passing. He really was the academic pathbreaker for all of us, leading the way to the creation and teaching of university social entrepreneurship courses that we teach. He touched me personally in a conversation in 2005 when I was writing my proposal for a senior undergrad course in social entrepreneurship. He reminded me that it had taken him 5 full years to get his first social enterprise course approved at Harvard B school, then laughed and told me that I could probably get it approved in a year. It actually flew through in only 6 months and received very positive remarks at the Senate hearing. It helped that Yunus had just won the Nobel Peace Prize. (I’ve taught my SocENT course every year since Jan. 2007).

    The last time I saw Greg was this past July in a video-conference presentation. Greg made a formal presentation about his current thinking about how social ENT can transform economic life and society. He was building on Douglas North’s economic perspective to re-think SocENT. Although Greg looked tired, he was full of academic energy presenting to the 2013 SocENT research conference at Oxford that he and Alex Nichols created.

    Lets all remember Greg’s contributions to our field and what a wonderful and kind human being he was with all of us. I will miss very much.

    Best wishes,

  • BY Kay Sprinkel Grace

    ON February 2, 2014 10:42 AM

    I did a chapter in one of Greg’s books, and found working with him to be one of the most supportive experiences I have had when writing a chapter in someone else’s book.  I was very moved by Beth’s tribute, and would echo many of her sentiments.  We gained by his presence in our world, and his legacy resides in those of us who saw the clarity of his vision and the determination of his path.

  • Kim Smith's avatar

    BY Kim Smith

    ON February 2, 2014 11:58 AM

    Beth - You captured the heart of an amazing human being and leader in your tribute. Thank you for sharing what a special man Greg was. He was a mentor of mine and a colleague and supporter (he was on our very early board as we launched NewSchools 17 years ago when I was a student at Stanford). He was, as you say, always incredibly supportive and inquisitive and curious, and such a great mentor, teacher and lifelong-learner. He will be sorely missed and we should all be so grateful to have had him in our lives - I surely am.

  • BY Susan Colby

    ON February 23, 2014 11:33 PM

    Beth - Thank you for your beautiful words. I have been trying to find a way to express how sad I am about Greg’s death. Greg was on the board of the Bridgespan Group during most of the time that I was at Bridgespan. We had the privilege of sitting with him in person three times a year at our board meetings. He was an extraordinary advisor to all of us. In the most supportive, gentle, and kind—but clear—ways, Greg made sure that we stayed focused on the prize of maximizing our social impact for the greatest good. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend so much time in consultation with Greg. I miss him already and I know the world misses him as well. Thank you, Greg, for your enormous contributions and for your mentorship and for being a great man.

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