Chicago Ideas Week Part I – Social Entrepreneurship Forum

“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea.” – Buddha

I landed in Chicago for a week of idea-sharing – participating in the Chicago Ideas Week, interviewing people in Millennium Park for the Park Dreams project for NatureStage, and presenting a version of my talk, Saving the Elephants, Saving Ourselves; The Role of Art in Social Change at the Humanist Sociology Conference in Evanston (Daring to Be Dangerous: A Sociology for Our Troubled Times).

Here is the first installment from Chicago Ideas Week with a synopsis of a few of the talks at the morning session on Social Entrepreneurship which included a tremendously inspiring group of social innovators: David Bornstein: Founder, Dowser; Emma Clippinger: Co-Founder and Executive Director, Gardens for Health International; Robert Fogarty: Founder, Dear World; Dave Gilboa: Co-Founder and Co-DEO, Warby Parker; Scott Harrison: Founder & CEO, charity: water; Leila Janah: Founder & CEO, Samasource; Jeff Nelson: Co-Founder & Executive Director, Urban Students Empowered.

October 10, 2011

The President and CEO of Better World Books, David Murphy, began the session by defining social entrepreneurship as a way to solve social problems on a large scale. When he created his company, he said he wanted it to be disruptive, scaleable, and a game-changer. He conceived of an online bookstore “with a soul” that would donate a portion of all book sales towards non-profit literacy partners worldwide. He pointed out the ongoing need for this type of business model and described the state of literacy in the world today. Almost 1 billion people are illiterate and 2/3 are women. Better World Books is founded on the idea that literacy is fundamental to breaking poverty and the dependency cycle which comes from illiteracy.

Murphy made a strong point of saying that social entrepreneurship is not “kumbaya”. SE is a vital way to harness the potential of business to solve social and environmental challenges at home and around the world. He pointed out that 70% of non-profit funding comes from the private sector and that this must change in order to solve the large-scale challenges we face.

David Bornstein, of Dowser - advocate for

The next speaker at the forum was David Bornstein, the founder of Dowser, which specializes in solution journalism. He described how he started off as a daily reporter wanting to help the world self-correct with his writing. He pointed out that one of the main reasons attempts to solve social issues are stymied is that “we’ve been asking bureaucracies to write poems.” He says that for problems to be solved at a large scale, it takes an extreme level of caring, similar to the way a mother cares for her child.

Bornstein then pointed out the staggering statistics of homelessness in the U.S. and that a systematic approach is often very successful when there is real time taken to understand the causes of a problem. He illustrated his point by describing the 100,000 Homeless Campaign. Their goal is to house 100,000 by July 2013, and to date they’ve housed @10,000. He describes how the specific needs of the homeless can be met through being registered and well-matched with housing that is available. For example, 5% of homeless can’t find housing because they have a pet. He then described the method which Friends of the Children in Harlem is able to succeed in their mission. They create a mentoring program so that requires the mentors stay for 12 years – from kindergarten through high school.

Bornstein had four overarching ideas: that it takes time for an idea to develop and be tested, and that solving large social problems takes an extraordinary level of caring, steadfastness, and a willingness to take in information and revise one’s idea. “Self-selected problem-solvers are emerging and creatively destroying the old institutions to make better ones.” He insists that the field of social entrepreneurship needs the same structural supports of other types of entrepreneurship — films made about the mission, geniuses at human resources, funders, governments to pay serious attention and integrate them into their public policies. He ended with the quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-1944).

“To live is to be slowly born.”

Leila Janah, founder and CEO of Samasource

Leila Janah began her powerful talk by asking the audience to go back in time and imagine their first job. She describes how her first job gave her a glimpse of independence and worth in the world. She then asked us to imagine an alternate universe where you didn’t have that job opportunity and that you were born into the huge percentage of people on the planet who make up to 3 dollars a day. She pointed out that in Africa men are paid a dollar a day to join militias and riot in the streets and that these men need an alternative way to make a living. In Africa nearly 144 million youth are unemployed or working but living in poverty. She says we’ve internalized the idea that these people will always be poor, yet she describes how corporate influence is everywhere, indicated by Energizer batteries, Unilever soap, Malboro Lights, Coca Cola — even in the smallest villages. She points out that they are not beyond being thought of as consumers. What if all these people living in poverty were treated as four billion brains that could be innovators, creators and fully included in the global economy?

Janah then described the rise of manufacturing and segmenting of products into smaller pieces exemplified by Henry Ford. She used to think you couldn’t have manufacturing without infrastructure. Five years ago she had an epiphany while in India on a call center floor. She realized that people could work with just a cell phone, a cheap computer and a signal. She introduced the concept of microwork. What if you could break down large projects into small centers of virtual assembly lines?

Janah points out that there are 1 billion computers in the world. The cost for the average African to get online will go down soon by 90%. She founded Samasource 7 years ago with the mission to connect people to work via the internet. Apple has more money than most african companies combined. Why not use them to make a dramatic dent on poverty? She described how the entire fair trade industry including coffee, jewelry, furniture etc is only worth 5 million dollars annually. Although she supports fair trade in all its forms, she doesn’t believe this will end poverty in the long run. Through recruiting local entrepreneurs to teach local people seeking work how to do microwork, people at the bottom of the pyramid can have meaningful work that will help them escape poverty.

The most powerful of Janah’s illustrated successes with Samasource showed how much people want to feel their work is helping others–that it is meaningful and useful. She says we need to be intentional about fighting poverty and identify ways of outsourcing microwork in their company’s supply chain. The key is help people feel like producers rather than consumers. What I found implied in her talk was the idea that through more people participating in the global economy as workers, a sense of fairness and dignity could lead to a more peaceful world.

The next installment is a transcription of the meeting of the mayors from New York, Chicago and Atlanta and moderated by Thomas Friedmann, with Richard Stengal of Time Magazine. Join the blog for updates or follow on twitter @naturestage

About naturestage

Miranda Loud is the Founder and Artistic Director of the non-profit NatureStage based in Waltham, MA, and is an interdisciplinary artist - classical singer/organist/filmmaker/photographer and environmentalist. She writes about the vital need for education to include a more heart-centered approach to studying other species that leads to a sense of stewardship. Naturestage creates works that foster empathy and kinship with other species, using the emotional power of storytelling in different art forms, mainly film, photography and music. She is also a public speaker on art and social change. Her current projects include The One Language Project, Park Dreams, The Elephant Project, and Elephantasia which all use different art forms to encourage a mind shift in how we relate to other species by asking "How would the world be different if we viewed other species as someones instead of somethings? If, instead of drawing lines, we drew circles?"
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