Transforming Lives through Social Entrepreneurship
Middlebury College launched its new Center for Social Entrepreneurship in inspiring fashion as more than 500 students packed Mead Chapel to hear Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of Acumen Fund, give a keynote address about using market-based principles to tackle global problems.
Social entrepreneurship is a relatively new concept now in full embrace at Middlebury College. It occurs when individuals identify an unjust social outcome—such as hunger, disease, or the dire need for clean water, safe housing, or access to health care—and create a sustainable process to correct the problem for others.
In her 40-minute presentation on January 26, Novogratz showed example after example of how social entrepreneurs in India, Pakistan, Rwanda, and other developing nations have used “robust business models with a humanitarian ethos” to transform people’s lives. They have brought electric light to people who otherwise depended upon kerosene lamps; they have built factories to manufacture mosquito nets to ward off malaria; they have created ambulance services so people could be transported to the hospital instead of the morgue.
Traditional approaches to charity often create bureaucracy and dependence and ultimately fall short of expectations, she said, because what human beings yearn for most of all is dignity. “And dignity comes from choice and opportunity. So there had to be a better way to deliver basic goods and services so critical to people.” In 2001 Novogratz started Acumen Fund as a non-profit venture-capital fund designed so entrepreneurs could experiment with new market-based ideas to offer choice and opportunity to people—and effect real social change.
“And at the heart of the social entrepreneurship model is the notion of patient capital,” she continued. “That for an entrepreneur to go into a community where people make one or two or three dollars a day, where there is no infrastructure at all, where there is enormous levels of corruption and market distortion, and where there is very little trust because they have seen people come and go for generations, it is really hard to change the game. It is really hard to change behavior and it takes a long time. It takes years of experimentation. And money that we thought we’d need to invest for five to seven years, is now taking more than 10 or 15 years to give entrepreneurs the time they need to do that experimentation and create those models. But 10 years later the exciting thing we can say about patient capital is that it works.”
Since 2001 projects financed by the Acumen Fund have invested $74 million in 65 companies, impacted 86 million lives, and created 55,000 jobs in Asia and Africa, Novogratz said.
The author of the acclaimed memoir, “The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World” (Rodale Books, 2010), Novogratz left a lucrative post in international banking and ultimately founded Duterimbere, a microfinance institution in Rwanda. The title of her book stems from an experience she had years ago when she encountered a child on the street in Kigali, Rwanda, wearing the same blue sweater (with Novogratz’s name still emblazoned inside the collar) that the author had owned as an adolescent. After she had outgrown the sweater, her mother had given it to Goodwill only to have Novogratz find the sweater again 10 years later. According to her website, she holds the story “as a metaphor for how interconnected we are, how our action and our inaction can impact people we might never know and never meet every day of our lives all around the world. In many ways finding that blue sweater on that boy in Rwanda was the beginning of my journey.”
At the outset of her talk in Mead Chapel, Novogratz said, “The culture of Acumen is very much mirrored in the culture of Middlebury, which is the culture of a liberal arts education: bringing one’s whole self to whatever they do and making connections around seemingly disparate issues and areas of study.”
She returned to that theme of undergraduate education again at the conclusion of her remarks. “When you think about moving from Middlebury into the world and what you can do to change the world, you don’t have to think about changing it all in one fell swoop overnight. But if you see there is something [small] out there that you can change, just do it. Just start. Take one step and let the work teach you. And if it really scares you, then you should do it especially. Wise men and women for many, many generations have told us that every day we should do something that scares us.”
“The world out there is a mess,” she sighed. “And while there are many ways to live lives of meaning and purpose, many ways within the rules, the ones who will change the rules, who will create the new patterns, who will create the new roadmaps, [they] are the ones with the courage to go beyond the status quo. They are the ones with the courage to sometimes be laughed at and sometimes give up what others on a more traditional map are getting.”
Novogratz’s presentation entitled “Creating a World Without Poverty” was one of several events in the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s (MCSE) first annual symposium.
Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka and a pioneer in the field of social entrepreneurship, delivered the symposium’s opening address on January 25 in the McCullough Social Space. Even before the establishment of the MCSE, Ashoka—with over $30 million invested in the work of 2,000 fellows in 60 countries—had selected Middlebury as one of its “changemaker campuses.”
Drayton spoke about social entrepreneurs as people who “give themselves permission to solve problems,” and who will be increasingly important in a world where the pace of change is accelerating exponentially, making many of our institutions dysfunctional. Dristy Shrestha ’11, from Nepal, and Kennedy Mugo ’12, from Kenya, told stories about their journeys to Middlebury and their efforts to bring about change in their home countries. Drayton asked them to talk about how they had become changemakers, and both said their families had played an important role, but that it also had to come from within. They pointed to the power of the liberal arts education they’d received at Middlebury, saying they would not have been able to accomplish all they’d done without that base.
As the driving force behind the social entrepreneurship movement at Middlebury, President Ronald D. Liebowitz said the center aspires to be a world leader in social change. “It will offer young people and their allies an opportunity to take on the world’s toughest 21st-century challenges and make a difference. As we launch this initiative, I want to acknowledge the generosity of Alan Hassenfeld, former CEO of Hasbro, Inc., whose support has been critical in getting this center off the ground.”
President Liebowitz presented the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s first Vision Awards—engraved pewter cups created by Danforth Pewter of Middlebury—to Jacqueline Novogratz and Bill Drayton.
The symposium also included a presentation of student projects, a roundtable discussion about social entrepreneurship, a slate of workshops for educators and students, and a concluding session with Gordon Bloom, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurship Lab at Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton.