Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Fifth Annual Symposium: Keynote Discussion with Cheryl Dorsey

By Grant Olcott

Cheryl Dorsey spoke with Laurie Patton at the symposium’s second keynote discussion. Cheryl, the president of Echoing Green, a nonprofit that sponsors social entrepreneurs, and founder of Family Van, reflected on her story of how she became a successful entrepreneur. She engaged with Laurie on topics ranging from finding a healthy work-life balance to social injustices and privilege. After her talk, members of the CSE presented the Vision Award.

The important moments in the life of a social entrepreneur are fascinating. Hearing about the never-ending list of inequalities in the world leaves ordinary people feeling stuck. Of course, it would be better to pick a world where such a thing doesn’t occur, but then comes the thought, “we can’t pick.” Or, “there’s no need to pick.” This moment happens to everyone all the time.

But think about that same moment in the lives of social entrepreneurs. They were also exposed to something awful at one point. In that moment, the same sort of frustration and helplessness must have swept through their minds. But later, they had a moment others didn’t. One where they banished those thoughts, and dedicated themselves to doing the (im)possible: picking the other world where that injustice does not occur.

Cheryl had her big moment in Medical School. She had always sought to help improve the availability of health resources in poor communities, and was especially bothered by the high rate of Black infant mortality. When she saw a newspaper photo of a mother burying her young son, she had her moment. She then dedicated herself to a cause she felt connected to and never looked back. This moment was not without sacrifice. She had to disillusion her parents by closing the door on becoming a wealthy doctor and then quickly launch her new healthcare idea. Truly appreciate this moment for all of the courage and passion it must have taken. There’s nothing more inspirational.

The next big moment must be when the entrepreneur, determined to make a difference, switches jobs. It’s when the change happens for real. I imagine it to be sudden and dramatic, but Cheryl did it gradually. She completed her education as a Harvard undergrad and medical school student without disruption, taking the skills she learned in the classroom to the community. Perhaps she had the innate personality of a social servant or had the rare ability to plan accurately for the future. Either way, she made the change without much hassle.

Big moment number 4: putting the idea in practice. Imagine the first morning that an entrepreneur wakes up and goes out the door to make that difference. This first step must feel incredibly rewarding. Or perhaps a little disillusioning. Cheryl faced several obstacles, but none big enough to make her quit. Instead she learned an important lesson: things change as you move from theory to practice. If the business model does not iterate in between the drawing board and the actual service, something is wrong. One must listen to the community receiving the help. Driving around in her van, Cheryl learned that the neighborhood did not need someone to perform medical care, as she originally envisioned. The inhabitants simply did not have access to the necessary information and infrastructure to help them live well. They needed more health care facilities, and, for those who don’t speak English, they needed everything to be explained.

From then on, the moments only get better. Try to imagine the moment when Cheryl realized she had prevented more of those sad pictures from appearing on the news. Picture the feeling of speaking with the people no longer harmed by the injustice that inspired the enterprise. Think how much Cheryl must appreciate knowing that she built a team by showing other people that they can pick the world without the terrible injustice. These are the moments to work towards.

The world changes continuously, often leaving one to feel powerless to its currents. But there are moments when change makers can point to something positive and think, “I did that.” Those are the most powerful moments — the ones Cheryl shared with the Middlebury community at the January Symposium.


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