Guest Post by Nick Rehmus, a Literary Studies major at Middlebury College and COO of Cottage International
June 20th, 2014
When I took my seat at the first major event of the 2014 CSE June Forum, a “Fireside Chat” with Marina Kim, Co-Founder and Executive Director of AshokaU, and Jonathan Lewis, Scholar-in-Residence at the NYU Reynolds Program, the late-evening sky was still glowing warmly over the lush Vermont hills. The talk’s picturesque setting and quaint name, however, belied the incredible earnestness of the discussion to follow, 60 breathless minutes of exacting critique of some of the most central and pressing questions of our time: What exactly is the status of social entrepreneurship? Where are things headed? What can and should we be doing to make the best future? Though the audience was mostly comprised of educators, as a 21-year-old current student, I found myself hanging on every word.
First, they agreed that the rise of social entrepreneurship coincides with a generational shift, its ideological and economic demand largely driven by the young and increasingly powerful Millennials. This raises the important question of what exactly the Millennials’ motivations are; as Jonathan put it, “Is this generation about ‘me,’ or about mission?” Marina’s response rang true with me: probably both. This generation is self-centered, by circumstance and training, and by the incredible ego-building forces of technology. But what they want is to live a “life of meaning,” and that often includes the very un-self-centered desire to create positive social impact. It’s an interesting paradox, and one whose successful navigation will mean the difference between changing the world and reinforcing the status quo. This is the reason, Marina explained, that Ashoka sees empathy as the critical and foundational skill of social entrepreneurship.
Both Marina and Jonathan were clear, however, to stress the importance of everything that comes after that initial, empathic impulse: leadership, teamwork, and an analytical eye. Jonathan in particular spoke to the necessity of being action oriented and holding work to high and measurable standards. The skills of the classic, non-socially-focused business world are incredibly powerful, a point made by many presenters throughout the June Forum. He suggested that Millennials treat their entire lifetimes as units of impact, over the course of which proficiencies would be built in every field and sector. In order to be truly effective, this generation will need to temper their urgency and vigor with patience and practicality.
As an aspiring change-maker myself, I’m both excited and apprehensive about the future. It’s unsettling to think, as both Marina and Jonathan mentioned, that entire industries are changing during the time it takes for students to pursue an academic degree. The conservative liberal arts student in me wants to hunker down and read the Great Works of literature and philosophy, grasping at the few things that still seem ageless and static. Of course, the truth is, the great wisdom in dusty books provides no stasis, in fact compels us to recognize and act on our basic human codependence. The Life of Meaning that so many of us seek—Millennial or otherwise—is one that hinges on social justice, our contribution to the creation of a world of, in Marina’s words, “abundance, not scarcity; possibility, not despair.” And luckily—it seems to me—, with students and educators turning their attention to these questions, with the for and non-profit sectors blending and learning from each other, and with the ever-increasing legitimacy of this social entrepreneurship field/philosophy, there is much reason to be optimistic.