The Top Moments of the Decade in Social Entrepreneurship

With $50 million in approved funding, the forthcoming Social Innovation Fund provides a chance to live up to the promise of the office. Other notable moments for government collaboration with social entrepreneurs include the Fall 2006 launch of the Louisiana Office of Social Entrepreneurship – the first state level office of it’s type, and the UK’s May 2006 commissioning of the Cabinet Office of the Third Sector.

#9: First Issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review  (Spring 2003) – The 2000s saw a huge number of academic programs based around social entrepreneurship and innovation. Indeed, it’s increasingly a prerequisite that MBA programs have significant social innovation offerings. I’ve chosen the publishing of the first issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review as the moment to capture this movement because, as any good academic will tell you, every field needs a journal. Since 2003, SSIR has been the place to get into the real research and scholarship behind our field.

#8: Andrew Zolli Joins Pop!Tech (2003) and TED Talks Move Online (June 2006) – As I argued in my #3 Trends Shaping Social Entrepreneurship in 2010 prediction, social innovation is an increasingly bigger bucket and actors and institutions from other fields like design are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a social entrepreneur. Pop!Tech and TED are perhaps the two most important public faces of this broader world of creative social innovation. Both networks are anchored in conferences that bring together big thinkers from across the spectrum, and both networks have used the incredibly distribution power of the internet to help make the world safe for smart. Although they have their roots in earlier decades, there are a number of identifiable moments in the last ten years that stand out. For Pop!Tech, the emotional and intellectual force of curator Andrew Zolli has taken the network into a new league that continues to evolve at an incredible pace. For TED, the decision in 2006 to begin giving away the talks for free online has allowed anyone with an internet connection to be inspired, and with 100+ million views, that impact can hardly be calculated. I am totally convinced that these communities will continue to bring new people to social entrepreneurship as well as push those of us in the field to think differently about who and what we are and do.

#7: Unilever’s Acquisiton of Ben & Jerry’s (April 2000) and Cadbury’s Shift To Fair Trade (March 2009) – These twin events are something of the Yin and Yang of corporate involvement with social good. Ben & Jerry’s sold itself to European conglomerate Unilever in early 2000 with the promise that Unilever would keep its myriad social good programs in tact. Unfortunately, they didn’t, and the fallout has had a profound impact on how investors like the folks at Good Capital think about structuring their investments to "bake social good into the DNA" as GoodCap founder Kevin Jones is fond of saying. On the flip side, the Fair Trade movement – a subsection or related cousin of social enterprise, depending on your perspective – has become increasingly mainstream – particularly in Europe. In March of this year, famous UK Chocolate maker Cadbury announced that its entire Dairymilk line would subsequently be produced with exclusively Fair Trade certified chocolate. A few months later, as Kraft circled for a Cadbury acquisition, many wondered if it would be Ben & Jerry’s all over again. Exits for social enterprise will be a major factor in determining how far the field advances in the next decade.

#6: The Launch of the iPhone (June 2007) – Bear with me. Regardless of how you feel about Apple or social media, it is pretty inarguable that the iPhone is the first consumer electronic device to truly put the power of the computer in your pocket. It is truly the modern Swiss Army Knife, with 100,000+ applications that allow you to do everything from find parks that kids can play in to post status updates on Facebook to perform microtasks that help give work to refugees in Kenya. The iPhone is the first device that actualized the potential of the social communication revolution wrought on by instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, and now geolocation services like Foursquare and Gowalla. In doing so, it is accelerating the shift in how we self organize, and I believe that we’re only seeing the beginning of how the devices we carry in our pockets will allow us to shift how we act collectively and individually for the common good. The iPhone may eventually be disrupted itself, but its importance as the device that launched the revolution will stick.

#5: Teach For America’s 2009 Recruitment Class Numbers (May 2009) – Who turned down more than 30,000 top college graduates last year? Who received applications from a full 11% of graduating Ivy League seniors, including 16% of Yale’s class? Who was the top employer of graduating seniors from Brown, Georgetown, Trinity College, the University of Chicago, Marquette, and about a dozen other schools? Not Goldman Sachs. Not McKinsey, Deloitte or any other consulting firm. It was Teach For America. In a field predicated on the idea that social innovation can be scaled to achieve widespread change, we have precious few examples of organizations that have actually begun to achieve it. While TFA isn’t where it wants to be – still facing often contentious relationships with teachers unions that limit placements, for example – it has achieved a scale, particularly in the hearts of the vital next generation of change leaders – that demonstrates the potential of the field.

#4: Bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers (September 2008) and launch of the Social Capital Markets Conference (October 2008) – Even in the few years that I’ve been actively involved with the field, social entrepreneurship has increasingly shifted away from an exoneration of heroic individuals to understand itself instead as a full market apparatus with institutions for funding, operations, and support, and increasingly robust pipelines for information and financing. The first Social Capital Markets conference in San Francisco, held in October 2008, was notable in that it was explicitly about this emerging market structure, and brought together a hugely diverse cross-section of the actors involved. Only a month before, Lehman Brothers crashed in the largest bankruptcy in US history and sent shivers through the mainstream financial world. The events feel tied to me because at its core, the attendees and planners of the first (and subsequent) SoCap are fundamentally engaged with the question NOT of identifying high potential entrepreneurs, but of fundamentally reshaping capitalism. They have a lot of building to do, but the shift is significant and is already shaping what "social entrepreneurship" will mean in the coming decade.

#3: Muhammad Yunus And Grameen Bank Win Nobel Peace Prize (October 2006) and Kiva.org Founded (March 2005) – Every field needs its shining exemplars. Perhaps nothing has done more to make people take note of the idea that markets can be used for good than the Nobel Peace Prize committee recognizing Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he founded in Bangladesh in the 1970s. Since then, Yunus has become an increasingly household name, and as he has told the story of microfinance, he has opened the door to the conversation about "social business," as he calls it in a book of the same title, more broadly. Of course, the action engine that made Yunus’ increasing reknown so powerful for our field is Kiva.org, the microlending site that just passed $100 million in loans and that has given millions of average citizens the chance to be a part of microfinance. While no one would argue that donating $25 (or even a bunch more than that) constitutes a full engagement with the field of social entrepreneurship, I would imagine that Kiva has been the gateway drug for more Moms, Cousins, and Grandparents than just about anything else, and has opened up the gates for a whole new crop of organizations like Vittana, Samasource, and Change.org to create new ways to engage online.

#2: David Bornstein Publishes "How To Change The World" (February 2004) – Before I knew what social entrepreneurship was, exactly, I knew about David Bornstein’s "How To Change The World: Social Entrepreneurs And The Power Of New Ideas." That was the case for most of the undergrads I knew getting into the field. Bornstein’s collection of stories of some of the world’s best performing and least known social innovators was the book that brought together a seemingly interesting idea and made it real, tangible, and tasteable. Although there have been a lot of great books about the field put out since then, Bornstein’s remains at the top of the list for those who want the overview and inspiration. In terms of building the field, it’s hard to calculate how important this book has been and will be to the new generation of young people clamoring to create or help grow the innovative institutions of tomorrow. Like every field needs a journal, every young movement needs a book to tip it from niche to popular. More than any other, David’s book has done that for social entrepreneurship.

#1: eBay Goes Public (September 1998) – Barron’s recently published a list of the Top 25 best philanthropists. Right on the top of the list at #1 and #2 respectively were Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll, the founder and first employee of online auction site eBay. In September 1998, when eBay went public and Omidyar and Skoll became worth 9+ figures, it created the wealth and the opportunity that have done arguably the most to build social entrepreneurship into a recognizable field over the last ten years. Omidyar’s Omidyar.net has functioned as a venture capital/philanthropic investment firm, making grants and investments in groups working in microfinance, digital access, and social entrepreneurs working on a host of other issues. What’s more, the Omidyar.net/group online community was one of the earliest and most important conversation groups to discuss social innovation in the early part of the decade. Skoll barely needs a writeup. I argued a few days ago that he should have been on Inc’s top entrepreneurs of the decade list. He has pumped more than $1b of eBay stock into his Skoll Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, launched the "Davos of Social Entrepreneurship," the Skoll World Forum, started a major Hollywood studio – Participant Media – dedicate to films for good like "An Inconvenient Truth," and most recently launched a new "Urgent Threats Fund" to deal with issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While I’ve chosen a moment that happened at the end of the last decade, the real impact of the eBay bros belongs entirely to the 2000s, and we’re much the better for it.

Honorable Mention #1: Al Gore Debuts "An Inconvenient Truth" at Skoll World Forum (March 2006) – I purposefully didn’t include anything explicitly about the mainstreaming of environmental justice and climate change as a part of social entrepreneurship, for the reason that I believe that it is truly its own beast. That said, environmental impact is a core part of the triple bottom line equation sought for by social entrepreneurs, and in trying to think of moments that best highlight the connection between these spaces, I came to the premier of Al Gore’s Academy Award winning "An Inconvenient Truth," which happened at the Skoll World Forum 2006.

Honorable Mention #2: Two organizations that deserve to be recognized but for which I couldn’t think of one particular moment to mention. Echoing Green and Ashoka – both of which have roots in the 1980s – have consistent drivers of the field, Ashoka has been a constant public advocate for worldwide changemakers and the idea of social entrepreneurship, and Echoing Green has become one of the most important funders and aspirational models for young social innovators. Both have been permanent and vital parts of this field throughout the 2000s.

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