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Tori Callahan
5 min
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5 Ways Entrepreneurial Thinking is Solving Social Problems

The landscape of today’s social problems is rapidly changing. While we’ve made significant progress, many existing social challenges continue to grow in magnitude and complexity, and each year new problems arise.

Modern slavery has grown to an estimated 27 million people today, double the total amount of people taken from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade. Climate change has contributed to a significant growth in the number of natural disasters, resulting in nearly three times as many disasters occurring between 2000-2009 compared to 1980-1989.

These growing issues require new types of solutions. As Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant wrote in Forces for Good, “we don’t have time for incremental change – we need dramatic change if we are to solve the complex global problems that plague us today.”

That dramatic change will not be driven by traditional thinking. Designing solutions for today’s social problems requires an entrepreneurial approach, a mindset that embodies the characteristics of bold thinkers with audacious goals, crafting data-driven strategies with iterative solutions. And it’s important to note that this mindset is not restricted to the traditional definition of an entrepreneur. Today, a growing number of businesses and large NGOs embrace this approach internally as a means to more effectively solve problems.

Below are five characteristics that illustrate why an entrepreneurial mindset is best poised to solve social problems.

1. Entrepreneurial thinking challenges tradition.

The most successful social entrepreneurs challenge themselves to be open-minded and approach problems with a filter that is void of established tendencies and stigmas. They are unconventional thinkers, not limited by the constraints of the systems in place, but instead challenge those systems with fresh ideas and techniques. Don’t mistake this objectivity with naivety; entrepreneurs leverage research and data-driven analysis to account for factors and variables that existing solutions may have overlooked. Their ability to challenge commonly assumed principles or beliefs ushers in a completely new way of thinking.

For example, when Maria Vertkin began Found in Translation, she strove to address two distinct social problems: economic disadvantages faced by minority women, and racial, ethnic, and linguistic disparities in health care. Rather than take the conventional route of providing jobs or vocational training for women, or advocating for improved justice in the health care system, Vertkin challenged traditional thinking.

She recognized the reality that many low-income communities are rich in bi-lingual talent. Coupled with the fact that the medical interpreter workforce is struggling to keep up with the growth of the immigrant population (the demand is increasing so rapidly that the BLS predicts 42.2% employment opportunity growth for translators and interpreters between now and 2020), she created a program that makes it possible for multilingual women with limited financial resources to break into the field of medical interpreting.

2. Entrepreneurial thinking combines creativity with market intelligence.

Entrepreneurial thinking naturally embodies creativity, a boundless imagination as to what is possible. But the most successful entrepreneurial endeavors balance creative solutions with comprehensive market intelligence. Knowledge of the problem and contributing factors empowers entrepreneurs to blend dissimilar concepts from different contexts and craft a new, differentiated or completely unique strategy.

For example, when Earth Enable witnessed that 80% of Rwandans live in homes with dirt floors and that these dirty floors were a major contributing factor to child mortality in the country, they had to get creative with their strategy. A concrete floor would suffice, but a majority of Rwandans cannot afford to install that material.

They sought inspiration from a growing movement in the US, witnessing homeowners installing sustainable earthen floors in their homes. EarthEnable created a floor made of gravel, laterite, fine earthen mix, and oil that is both affordable and safe for children in Rwanda. Healthy floors have been shown to reduce incidence of childhood diarrhea by 49% and to reduce parasitic infections by 78% in the country.

3. Entrepreneurial thinking practices humility.

Humility is a core component of entrepreneurial thinking. It drives even the boldest leaders to challenge their own established tendencies and recognize their potential for continual improvement. Successful entrepreneurs strive for perfection, obsess over learning and iteration and recognize that they can always do better.

Confronting the hardest problems on the planet requires humility to admit that we don’t know many answers when we start and sometimes we don’t even know the right problem to work on. If we address symptoms rather than root causes, we can exacerbate conditions. If you start with the wrong problem, you’ll certainly propose the wrong solution.”

– Aleem Walji, Director, Innovation Labs, The World Bank

For example, a major aspect of the Pencils of Promise initial strategy was building schools to address a lack of access to education for children in Laos. The organization quickly became known for building hundreds of school around the world. But over time and through their lessons learned, they recognized that the physical structure of a new school is only one piece of providing quality education. As a result, Pencils of Promise is starting to shift its narrative to incorporate a more holistic approach, one that includes a deeper focus on teachers, student outcomes and innovation in the classroom.

4. Entrepreneurial thinking embraces risk and failure.

The social sector has never taken failure lightly – funding protocols, public perception and the significance of the problems being addressed have contributed to a risk-adverse environment. But ideas that drive dramatic change are inherently risky propositions and they present the potential to fail. Entrepreneurial thinking acknowledges that uncertainty and accepts it as a necessary driver of progress.

A number of organizations run by entrepreneurial-minded leaders have pioneered new ideas that put them at risk for huge potential losses. For example, the Prison Entrepreneurship Program and Defy Ventures took bets on the potential of ex-convicts to become savvy business leaders. Immigration Equality and Scouts for Equality confronted deeply-rooted biases and traditions within and against the LGBT community. Partners in Health traveled to an unfamiliar and undeveloped world to build a medical hospital. Invisible Children lead a fight against a warlord by mobilizing millennials and Liberty in North Korea facilitates the transition of refugees from North Korea to South Korea. These missions are big and bold and dangerous, but the reward is far worth the risk.

5. Entrepreneurial thinking is BIG.

Big problems require big solutions. Entrepreneurs are driven by a “go big, go home” mentality in everything they do, and that is why entrepreneurial thinking is needed more today than ever before. Incremental change is not sufficient, they demand monumental change towards an audacious endgame.

I’m not going to stop the wheel. I’m going to break the wheel.”

– Daenerys Targaryen, Game of Thrones

For example, when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched the Zero Hunger Challenge in 2012, the global community was forced to think big. The Challenge was a call-to-action to governments, the private sector, NGOs and the public to eliminate hunger in our lifetimes. Organizations like the Alliance to End Hunger, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, One Acre Fund, World Food Programme, World Vision, and several UN agencies and departments, all stepped up to scale their efforts.

The stated goal of “zero hunger” is audacious, but as World Food Programme’s Executive Director Ertharin Cousin said: “You should not do this work if you’re not audacious.”



Photo Credit: Nancy Farese, for Landesa

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