I remember the first time I was called the “S” word. I was on the phone with Ashoka and the voice on the other end of the line said “You’re a social entrepreneur!” I was unaware of social entrepreneurship at the time. So, I did some research, bought David Bornstein’s book “How to Change the World” and read a chapter each night before going to bed. It was an inspiring read. And, even though it makes me blush a bit, I think its fair to say that I do share some of the traits of a social entrepreneur. Yet, I do not look in a mirror and see one looking back. I do not use the title in my Linkedin profile. And, I do not use #socent for twitter. Not sure what I am waiting for. I take that back. I do know. I am waiting for a distinction to be made.
Like a social entrepreneur, I can be an agitator. I like creative destruction. I like to unsettle things. And, at times, I like to make those in power feel a bit uncomfortable. Like a social entrepreneur, my penchant for disruption can have its drawbacks. Those who like the status quo and those who depend on the current system for their rewards can lash out. They can manufacture obstacles, sabotage my efforts, take away my funding, and bury my ideas in a mountain of bureaucracy.
It can be frustrating. It can be exhausting. It can be downright demoralizing. Indeed, when it gets really bad, you can find me in a grocery store check out line with a bag of Jalapeño Cheetohs in one arm and a bag of double-stuffed OREOS in the other. I’ll go home, curl up on the floor in the dark, and indulge in empty calories while streaming Star Trek on NetFlix. Of course, at some point, Jean-Luc will say “Make it so!” and his exemplary leadership will begin to shame me. So, I will take off my headphones, open up my “Reality Check” board to review my pins, and slowly get my ass off the floor.
Social entrepreneurs harness the system in an effort to solve its unpleasant byproducts. They work within its confines. For the most part, they defer to the dominant social structure. Yes, they may dance along they system’s margins. They may give it a poke. They may needle it. But, what if the system is the source of the social problems? What if the dominant social structure needs to be re-imagined? Are social entrepreneurs up to taking on this task?
It is here that I feel a distinction needs to be made between social entrepreneurs and “social innovators” (ht Dan Morrison). Social innovators re-imagine the relationships that make up our social structure. They challenge core beliefs, question worldviews, assault assumptions, and assail prejudices. They want nothing less than to puncture the current social structure equilibrium. They appeal for a more equal distribution of power and more inclusive identification of those who have access to information and opportunities. They demand entry into networks, clubs, and communities that previously denied them access. They march for equity, fairness and a more even playing field.
At least, that is what I think they do. But, I do know this. Social innovators make us question our identity, narrative, and assumed place in the world. They make us uncomfortable. Social innovators do not just challenge the status quo. They threaten it. And, the status quo is the status quo because those in power like it. In turn, those in power are in power because they have ready and low cost access to violence. And, at times they will wield it.
The distinction between social entrepreneurs and social innovators lies in the nature of the push back.
I may have to face the ire of a bureaucrat who is infuriated that I did not adhere to his checklist. But, social innovators may have to face death threats, intimidation of love ones, and bullying. And, when they take it to the streets, they may face water cannons, batons, pepper spray, clear plastic shields, German shepherds, armored horses, riot gear, and tanks.
My work can give me paper cuts, carpal tunnel syndrome (too much typing), irritated eyes (too much screen-time), arthritic thumbs (too much texting), indentations in the back of my legs (too much sitting), yellowed teeth (too much coffee), and a kink in my neck (too many selfies). But, the work of social innovators can give them broken bones, bruises, gashes, lacerations, and concussions. And, in some cases, incarceration, death and the disappearance of loved ones.
I am not a social innovator.
I am just a social entrepreneur.
Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)