An education for social entrepreneurs

There are two Kiwi courses for social entrepreneurs. Will either pay?

There are two Kiwi courses for social entrepreneurs. Will either pay?

Philip Patston


Wikipedia—bear with me here—says an entrepreneur is “a person who has possession over a new enterprise or venture and assumes full accountability for the inherent risks and the outcome.” Rather than being risk-takers, as the common belief goes, it says entrepreneurs are more likely to be risk-averse. They prefer to “efficiently and effectively use the factors of production … land, labour, capital, intelligence and knowledge, and creativity.”

What a lazy way to start a column, quoting Wikipedia. Or maybe I’m just being entrepreneurial and doing something no one else would do in a bold, daring manner. But, the quality of my literary entrance aside, having read the definition I am struck by a thought. We readily value land, labour and capital, so we have no problem accepting the likes of intelligent HR software, sustainable use of land and creative use of capital as entrepreneurial yardsticks. However, if we really valued intelligence, knowledge and creativity, shouldn’t promoting constructive attitudes, intentionally designing the future and harvesting unique, entertaining ideas be more profitable than it has been for me over the last ten years?

It’s one of the ironic questions I’ve had about my small business and social enterprise since late 2006, when I was invited to join two new networks: the New Zealand Social Entrepreneur Fellowship and the ART Venture programme for creative entrepreneurs. I’m fascinated by the new directions my professional life has taken in past 18 months. Since January 2007 I have increased my peer network by 25 (15 from the Fellowship and ten from ART Venture) and met dozens of connected individuals from JK Rowling’s publisher to leading investment capitalists. Sometimes I don’t know what to think: either this double-entrepreneur lark has been a very big mistake, or I am innovating innovation.

There are interesting differences between the programmes and opportunity for the groups to learn from each other. The three-year commitment to the Fellowship is twice as long as ART Venture’s 18 months (I think two years could have been a better timeframe for both). They have almost opposite approaches: ART Venture’s focus has been on acceleration, the Fellowship on standing still. Once again, a focus on slowing down to explore and evaluate in order to strategically scale up would be a happy medium. Pace could be the operative word. ART Venture has been structured with monthly events; the Fellowship meets twice yearly. There have been times when I’ve felt completely overloaded by the ART Venture programme while forgetting between retreats that I am on the Fellowship. The theme of balance and moderation repeats. While ART Venture has an overt goal of business development (with business coaching, seminars and a $20,000 investment pitch opportunity for each participant), the Fellowship’s primary aim is relationship building, giving Fellows opportunities to network tightly with some pretty lofty philanthropists, but lacking structured opportunity for capacity building and individual investment commitment.

As different as the groups seem on the surface, at times almost contradicting each other in terms of entrepreneurial principles, deep down there have been revealing similarities between the two. I was relieved to observe the deep commitment to social change I found in my fellow creatives (my biggest fear was to be stuck with a bunch of arty-farty poseurs); likewise I have been suitably impressed by the creativity of my social fellows. This overlap has been one of the perks of straddling both worlds.

In terms of positioning social and creative innovation as entrepreneurial businesses, the comparisons become less polarised. The proposition around money in both groups has led to many dialogues where I have I been left in the lonely space of disagreeing with everyone, including myself. Business entrepreneurship is defined by the ability (or at least potential) to make money, but not so with creative and social entrepreneurship, for different reasons it seems. Creative entrepreneurs are quite open to the prospect of wealth. The market, however, seems reluctant to conspire, careening from the mass appeal of pop art, design, music and media to the pompous snobbery of high-end tradition and derisive disregard of starving artist. Society at large seems equally unwilling to cough up decent amounts of cash for social entrepreneurs, who share the belief that social change should not make money because profiting from social innovation is just not an ethical pastime.

My business mission seems equally precariously split between both ends of the spectrum. I am interested in the ethical accrual of large amounts of wealth with none of the tangible outcomes Wikipedia requires, but which can be leveraged for constructive social and creative change. That seems highly unlikely until you consider that everything tangible begins with a thought and that curving the traditional straight line of a spectrum into a circle allows the ends to meet. Then you begin to get a glimpse at my entrepreneurial world of thought leadership and creative philanthropy, where innovations of the mind make straight lines bend, people see stigma as an experience to be playfully explored and a new, wise species masters creative expression as easily as breathing.

As I assume full accountability for this enterprise, whose production factors are worlds away from land, labour and capital, I realise I am doing nothing more than what entrepreneurs do: putting two existing things together—in my case social and creative entrepreneurship—and marketing the outcome.

My big challenge, as always, is showing how it will benefit people—and that it’s worth paying for.

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