Reality Check

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)


6 Responses to “Reality Check

  • The world needs both social innovators and social entrepreneurs. One thing that has particularly stuck with me from my women’s history class at Earlham was the two pronged/factioned approach to women’s suffrage in the US. The more radical group agitated, disrupted, and made the progressive but less extreme group seem more reasonable in comparison. Their reforms got through because of the more extreme alternative drawing so much of the hatred. I’ve seen this time & again in my reproductive health care/reproductive justice work over the last 20+ years. I was grateful to the folks agitating on the social or political extreme to give me the space to improve women’s lives in practical, immediate ways.
    [These ideas are also seen in action with the Republican party in recent years shifting to the right. But that just gets me tired and sad in a room with dark chocolate and a trashy novel.]

    • shumphre
      8 years ago

      Hey Kathy. I agree. We need both. I guess I wonder if social entrepreneurs (who are usually a product of the dominant system, hence their ability to navigate the system) can truly identify and see the injustices of the system that empowered them with their privileged situation. It may be that only those who are marginalized by the dominant system or even outside of the system can be social innovators. Still working through my thoughts on this. Thanks for the comment and Earlham memory trip!

  • An interesting dichotomy, Shawn. Or are the concepts of social entrepreneurship and innovation more juxtaposed than anything else? Anyway, you opened my eyes once again, as I never thought about these terms being positioned the way you presented them. Thanks! I’ll be contemplating a little more on the differences and similarities, just to get them anchored properly in my inner mind map.

    • shumphre
      8 years ago

      Hey Camille. It is interesting to think of them as two different actors, their complementary roles in social change, how they most likely need each other (see Kathy’s comment), and from what parts of society they arise from. And, one thing that I am working my way through is whether or not someone like me is even capable of being a social innovator (lets limit that definition for now to simply being able to truly see injustice). As a white heterosexual American male, do I have the ability to empathize and truly comprehend the struggles of those in less privileged position in the system. And, thanks so much for the “opened my eyes” complement. Rarely, gets better than that!

  • It’s important to you know what you are, but sometimes even more important to know what you’re not. Keep writing Shawn, and just write for one person if you get discouraged, and the rest will follow.

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