Living a LearningLife

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When I'm 64... I want to be restless, unreasonable, and impatient

AndyGilatsNEW.bmpFrom Andrea Gilats, LearningLife director

Here is an intriguing question. What do Ben Franklin, Florence Nightingale, Steve Jobs, and Muhammad Yunus have in common? Let's see...

Among prolific Ben's innovations were the public lending library and the volunteer fire department, and among his inventions were the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, bifocal glasses, and the flexible urinary catheter. Though Poor Richard and the Pennsylvania Gazette made him wealthy, it was the way Ben transformed his problem-solving skills into common-good solutions that contributed so critically to the civic structures and collective well-being we enjoy today.

During the Crimean War, field hospitals were notorious for their horrific conditions. For every soldier who died from wounds, 10 others died from disease and infection. But within six months after Florence Nightingale was dispatched to military hospitals in Scutari, Turkey, the mortality rate for wounded soldiers dropped from 42.7 percent to 2.2 percent. She then went on to create training programs for nurses that elevated them from "domestic" workers to medical professionals. Through her profound empathy, astute observations and analyses, and unyielding tenacity, Florence established the standards for sanitation, hospital management, and nursing education that have become worldwide norms.

Along with his friend Stephen Wozniak, Steve Jobs started making micro-computers in his garage, and ended up putting the power of computing into the hands (literally!) of millions of people around the world. Not only did he innovate the mouse and accompanying graphical interface that allowed anyone to become a computer whiz, he unleashed an era of unprecedented creativity by using his profits to grant free Apples to elementary schools across the United States. It isn't an overstatement to say that the broad access to knowledge, tools, and, more recently, to each other made possible by personal computers is a direct product of Steve's ingenuity.

In 1976, Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economics professor, followed a persistent hunch and founded the Grameen Bank, which demonstrated that "micro-credit" (small, collateral-free loans) could alleviate extreme poverty on a massive scale. During its first 30 years, the Bank lent $6.1 billion to 7.1 million Bangladeshi villagers (97% of whom were women), to parlay into productive farms and cottage industries. If my math is correct, that's an average of $860 per loan. It really worked. Yunus and the Grameen Bank spawned a micro-credit movement that, by 2005, had served 82 million of the world's poorest families, earning them the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

These four inspiring individuals, along with thousands of other restless, unreasonable, impatient people, are social entrepreneurs. What are social entrepreneurs and what makes them different from for-profit entrepreneurs? Actually, the two have a lot in common.

In their recent book, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World, John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship say this: "Through the practical exploitation of new ideas, entrepreneurs establish new ventures to deliver goods and services not currently supplied by existing markets." When characterizing social entrepreneurs, they add: "What motivates many of these people is not doing the 'deal' but achieving the 'ideal.'" The authors go on to list 10 characteristics they have observed in these diverse individuals. Let me share five that I think many of us can identify with.

Social entrepreneurs:

• Focus - first and foremost - on social value creation and, in that spirit, are willing to share their innovations and insights for others to replicate.

• Display a healthy impatience.

• Jump in before ensuring they are fully resourced.

• Have an unwavering belief in everyone's innate capacity, often regardless of education, to contribute meaningfully to economic and social development.

• Identify and apply practical solutions to social problems, combining innovation, resourcefulness, and opportunity.

Journalist David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (considered the "bible" of the field), says, "Social entrepreneurship is not about a few extraordinary people saving the day for everyone else. At its deepest level, it is about revealing possibilities that are currently unseen and releasing the capacity within each person to reshape a part of the world."

Muhammad Yunus and people like him are extraordinary, but they are also a lot like you and me. We all have great ideas, and thanks to pioneers like Muhammad, we've now got a host of ways to make them real. I think of Eric Schnell and PositiveChange, featured in this issue of Living a LearningLife, and I'm exhilarated by what we can do if the entrepreneurial spirit catches us.

There will be more about social entrepreneurship at the LearningLife Fest on Saturday, May 16, 2009.

Check out LearningLife Recommends for links to Web sites and books about social entrepreneurship. You will be richly rewarded.

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