Social Entrepreneurship Isn’t the Only Way to Make a Difference
by Osato Ebuomwan
Climate change. Hunger and malnutrition. Water and sanitation. Financial inclusion. These are just a few of the big problems the world needs to solve. They are huge and require lots of talent, creativity, funding, focus and collaboration, but like the popular saying goes, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
Enter the social entrepreneurs — extraordinary people who, motivated by an imperative to drive social change, come up with brilliant and innovative ideas, products and services that help solve some of these problems and improve lives and the society dramatically. And that’s great. Really. But not everyone is cut out to be a social entrepreneur.
Why is impact only equated with big things and only matters when it has scale. What about the little things that no one talks about?
I recently completed my MBA program, and one of the requirements was a capstone project which was supposed to be focused on solving a “wicked problem”. Some of my colleagues had really great ideas that served a higher purpose and would bring about impact for a majority, but all I wanted to do was open a café, literally. When I listened to them pitch their first thoughts about what they were hoping to do, I felt terribly inadequate, almost like I did not have a bigger purpose in life. To make matters worse, someone had written in my 360-degree feedback that I should “focus on doing things that bring impact to the wider society and not just for her pocket”. So I went through a weird phase of wondering whether I was really doing something that mattered. I wondered why impact was only equated with big things and only mattered when it had scale. What about the little things that no one talked about?
I ended up not writing my project vision and opportunity assessment summary until the date on which it was due because it felt like it wasn’t big enough or good enough. When I was asked why I was struggling with my project or whether there wasn’t anything big that I wanted to change in the world, I simply said that I wasn’t looking for a big thing. I just wanted to make a difference in my own little corner, one person at a time. And if it was only one person on whom I made an impact, then that would be enough for me. Even now, this is still true. I’m not sure many people understand it though.
‘Impactful’ doesn’t always have to be big, so don’t constrain yourself just because it does not have ‘scale’ in the conventional sense.
There are a number of things that I enjoy doing — things that bring me joy and give me a sense of fulfilment. I love learning new things — the process of getting my mind to twist and bend and expand as it makes sense of something I’ve never done or understood before. I love to write — putting words together in a way that is not only coherent, but compelling and capable of evoking emotion, thought, action. I love deep conversations where I can share my experiences openly and vulnerably and learn from the experiences of others. I love stories — listening to them, telling them, creating them.
The beautiful thing about all of these is that I can also use them to connect with and help others. By learning new things, I equip myself with the knowledge that enables me to teach others. By writing, I find expression for my thoughts but also for the thoughts of others who may not have the words. By having deep and powerful conversations, I build genuine connections and uncover insights about myself and others that spur higher levels of self-awareness and bring clarity of purpose in both professional and personal settings. And stories provide me an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of others, and to show others my own world.
I am not a social entrepreneur, but I do have a purpose.
How do I know then that I am making an impact or that any of these things actually make a difference? I know from the number of people whom I have helped to be or feel better: people who have made positive personal and career decisions because of an encounter that we had; people who have felt seen and understood or learned something new because they read something that I wrote. They may not be an entire segment of society, and the change that is happening may not be on a large scale, but these are people for whom what I do actually matters, and that is enough.
You might think that the flair you have for that weird thing that no one understands is a useless skill. You might think that because you haven’t figured out how to sell it for money, it’s not worth anything. You might be scared to pursue it with the passion that you know you want to pursue it with because you’re not sure what purpose it is meant to serve or who would even want it. But it just might be what someone needs to recalibrate, get going, move forward or go in a brave new direction. So channel it into something positive and make it something impactful. ‘Impactful’ doesn’t always have to be big, so don’t constrain yourself just because it does not have ‘scale’ in the conventional sense.
I am not a social entrepreneur, but I do have a purpose — to impact people’s lives in ways that are meaningful to them, using my experiences, knowledge, skills, and most especially, my voice. I write to evoke reflection, encourage learning, foster brave conversations and drive change in the hearts and minds of others.
In the words of Clayten Christensen, “The only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people… When I have my interview with my God, our conversation will focus on the individuals whose self-esteem I was able to strengthen, whose faith I was able to reinforce, and whose discomfort I was able to assuage — a doer of good, regardless of what assignment I had.”
I may not be solving the world’s biggest problems, but I am making a difference. And so can you.
P.S. I still intend to open a café someday, where I hope to create a safe space for people like me who just want a little corner in the world where they feel like they belong.
The Flip Side: At the heart of social entrepreneurship is value creation at scale — transformational benefits that accrue either to a significant segment of society or to society at large. While scale is essential to social entrepreneurship, value creation transcends it and applies to every endeavor, effort or attempt at ‘doing’. Doing what you love purposefully is not just about doing it for yourself. It is about making sure that ultimately what you are doing creates some kind of value to others. There’s no point having knowledge that you cannot or do not share, no point having a skill that you cannot apply towards doing good or creating value, so be sure to let this guide you at every point.
Osato Evbuomwan is a member of The Room and a Senior Marketing Manager at Unilever who is passionate about serving the African consumer. Creator of “The Talking Circle”, she is on a quest to cultivate a brave and safe space for conversations that challenge taboos and change mindsets.