Dare to be Delusional: Beyond Social Entrepreneurship pt. 1

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Entrepreneurial Development

I’ve been thinking and researching a lot about the development of entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs over the past three years. Some elements seem to always be there when an entrepreneur is described;

  • Creative destruction
  • Restlessness and curiosity
  • Listening to people but not believing them
  • A touch of delusion
  • Building structures based on resources, to which the entrepreneur does not yet have access

The list goes on and there are thousands of blog posts on this. But which elements are not always there? Which elements are added as the entrepreneur matures or evolves?

For instance, Richard Branson started out selling Christmas trees, student magazines and records, and continued to build an airline, train and mobile phone businesses. In the late 90’s he started discussions with Peter Gabriel and Nelson Mandela how to tackle global problems. Now his focus seems to be on space travel and other “big picture” projects. Bill Gates started out in computing and software, and has now turned to AIDS vaccines, polio eradication, financial services for the poor and tackling other massive global problems.

Why did these mega-entrepreneurs shift their focus towards global problems and disadvantaged people? Was it only because the problems the dealt with in their other businesses weren’t challenging enough? Or is there something more to the development of an entrepreneur?

Moral Development

Laurence Kohlberg was an American psychologist famous (to some) for his theory of stages of moral development. Perhaps his theory can be applied to Branson, Gates and other entrepreneurs who have shifted focus towards tackling global issues rather than selling more products and services? (Sure, both these mega-entrepreneurs still sell a lot of stuff, but it seems like their passions lie elsewhere now.)

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The essence in Kohlberg’s work is that we care about a larger group as we develop. An individual can develop from egocentric (focused on me) to socio-centric (focused on my culture, society or group) to worldcentric (focused on all humans no matter sex, race, creed etc) and onwards to higher, more all-encompassing levels.

  • A pre-conventional entrepreneur (stage 1-2 in the figure) would care only about themselves;
  • a conventional entrepreneur about their own culture (stages 3-4);
  • a post-conventional entrepreneur would consider all human cultures (stages 5-6) and
  • a post-post-conventional entrepreneur would care about all sentient beings (beyond the figure).

At which stages would a traditional entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur work?

Cognitive Development

Another thing that seemed to happen to Gates and Branson is this:  In order to be able to help these larger groups of people they increasingly cared about, they needed to understand how larger systems work. When they started out as young entrepreneurs, they needed to understand a computer, a small start-up, a town in one country, but while developing as entrepreneurs and in their global travels they learnt more about other cultures and ways of doing things. Their cognition (thinking) developed to include larger parts of the world with increased complexity, and today they “get” cultures, social systems, politics and technologies across the whole planet. Their cognitive level has shifted – just like their moral level.

The million dollar question here is of course this: How does an entrepreneur develop to be able to operate across many moral and cognitive levels without building a global business empire like Branson and Gates?

Well, that would be one of the main questions I think should be explored in a school for systems entrepreneurs.

 Schools for systems entrepreneurs

When I read Bridgette Engeler Newbury’s post “When marketing sucks, the future suffers”  a while ago I was taken by a recommendation at the end: “Dream bigger than ever”. “Marketing has always relied on big, inspiring ideas. Daring and brave, innovative and far-reaching. Ways not just to make sales but to transform lives (and the marketplace).”

Over the past year I have started to get increasingly frustrated with social entrepreneurship – a concept of change and way of life, which I earlier believed had real transformational qualities. Perhaps my issue with most social entrepreneurship is the small-scale of it. There are fantastic social enterprises such as Grameen and Kiva, but most of them are small-scale initiatives in local communities. These are important and must continue, but I think that local issues need local and global solutions. Most ideas in social enterprise are modelled on normal business without transformative or international impact. The ideas are too petty.

Meanwhile, right now in Silicon Valley a huge part of our common future is created by the next generation of Bransons and Gateses;  Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg & company. Tech billionaires, whose thinking, morals and worldviews have massive impact on us all and our planet. These guys think big for many reasons. And I believe that most social entrepreneurs must think as big as they do to create real change today.

Social enterprise (as most enterprise) is needs-based. So, one of the early questions a start-up gets from investors or advisors is “what is the customer need you target?” or something similar. The problem in this question (and the answers it leads to) is that this need often reflects a problem symptom and not its underlying systemic factors. Most entrepreneurs tackle symptoms rather than underlying problems.

But as a wise man said; we cannot use the same thinking to solve our problems as we used when we created them. Social entrepreneurship mostly uses such old ways of thinking with polarities like rich/poor, profit/non-profit, sustainable/unsustainable, developed countries/non-developed countries etc. I believe we need more entrepreneurs who think beyond these dichotomies.

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We need bigger thinking.

We need systemic solutions.

We need global and local solutions.

We need networked solutions.

We need more systems thinking entrepreneurs.

We need more deluded social entrepreneurs.

We need to train people to think about crazy, unreasonable and preposterous solutions to our challenges.

We need schools for systems entrepreneurs.

The mission of the Singularity University is to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges. That’s an excellent ‘big’ mission, and we need more of those in our educational institutions.

Still, we need to remember the entrepreneurial development pieces mentioned above; the cognitive and moral dimensions.

If I would run a school for systems entrepreneurs I would therefore steal the Singularity University’s mission but add a couple of things. Perhaps this one:

To develop, inspire and empower networked entrepreneurs to apply exponential technologies across systems of wise innovation clusters to address grand challenges.

Is that deluded enough for you?

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