Remembering Greg Dees
A reflection on the life of a social entrepreneurship pioneer.
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.