To All the Social Entrepreneurs: Get Over Your Egos

Social entrepreneurship is the new black. It’s sexy, versatile and looks good on anyone. (Or anyone’s résumé.) It’s the new American dream for the sons and daughters of the old one. Saving the world, making money, being your own boss — no wonder everyone wants to try it on for size.

Social entrepreneurship (think TOMS, solar tech, and impact investing) combines for-profit and non-profit goals. Technology is enabling us to make an impact practically in our sleep, a perfect fit for the millennial generation of digital natives. RYOT (where I work) lets you make a difference while reading the news; Enlightened.org lets you do so while shopping online; Rooomr lets you help people while booking a hotel room; TOMS and Warby Parker have shown that social consciousness can be a boon to profitability and not a hindrance; and on and on. Within a decade, practically every decision we make as consumers may be directly or indirectly affected by the notion of giving back, and entrepreneurs are popping up left and right to leverage this new business model.

I’ve worked in politics in D.C., in the fashion industry in New York and on the fringes of the entertainment industry for the last two years in Los Angeles. I’ve noticed that the social-good sector has many of the same problems as these industries: It can be male-dominated, ego-driven and filled with emotional decision making and cutthroat competitiveness, all of which remains hidden behind less-than-sincere congratulations and platitudes about synergy. (And by the way, I‘ve found men to be far guiltier of perpetuating the catty culture than women...) But hey, at least we're saving the world! 

There is competitiveness in nearly every industry, so drama in the cause space wouldn’t be problematic if the stakes weren't so high. Failure means not only loss of capital and reputation, but social consequences around the globe.

Ego is at fault for most of these failures. There exists no pervasive, underlying agreement that if an organization or company can make a greater positive impact than another, they should. Huge NGOs don’t kill their programs in certain regions even when there are half a dozen others doing similar, better work, nor do social entrepreneurs quickly step out of the way to let a more competent competitor take the market. They continue wasting donor and investor dollars to build a company or organization that is inextricably linked to their personal brand when it should be linked to outcomes. That’s the inherent danger of social entrepreneurship.

There is no time for the tension that exists between those who come to the space from the aid world versus those who come from the for-profit sector. These two groups distrust each other, based on assumptions about capabilities and intentions.

Get over it, work together, and stop acting like CHILDREN!

Entrepreneurship is often individualist, but it’s never solitary. To curb the effect of egos, we need more cooperation between social entrepreneurs who come from diverse backgrounds. Everyone has a lot to teach and learn from one another, and they desperately need one another if they want to affect the kind of impact they talk about. The for-profiters should infuse the space with sustainable, scalable business models, and the non-profiters should help guide funding to the best organizations on the ground, not just the ones with the flashiest websites.

When results go beyond EBITDA to making a difference around the world, hypocrisy becomes a social failure. Social entrepreneurs need to more honestly assess their own weaknesses and seek out help accordingly rather than becoming mired in ideology or narcissism.

I understand the resentment felt by some non-profiters who gave their blood, sweat and tears in the slums of Nairobi and tent camps in Haiti towards for-profiters entering the social good space for what they consider the wrong reasons, worrying that they're only after a piece of the proverbial money pie.

But this is a bad analogy. The whole point of social entrepreneurship is that making money isn’t contrary to the goal of social justice. Neither capitalism nor philanthropic giving are zero-sum games.

Just like the tech scene in the ‘80s, there is a massive amount of opportunity for innovation, a wildly willing market and most importantly, a serious need for democratization in order to create the most effective products and foster the best results. Passion and intentions are important, but results are what create real world change. 

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Molly Swenson

Originally from Seattle, Molly lived in Cambridge, Buenos Aires, New York and Washington D.C. before moving to Los Angeles where she currently lives by the beach. After graduating from Harvard, she worked in the fashion industry in NYC. Molly then took an internship at the White House and made a brief but memorable appearance on American Idol Season 10, where Randy Jackson punched her in the kisser. Since moving to LA, she has worked with some of the world’s most high-profile individuals on philanthropic strategy.

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