Ten years ago, social entrepreneurship was a pretty lonely field. There weren’t degree programs or associations; impact investing and microfinance were barely even recognized terms. Even organizations like Ashoka* – which has a 25-year history of investing in entrepreneurs with high potential for solving social problems – would have struggled to promote their “Everyone a Changemaker” vision.
All of that has changed. Economic bubbles have burst and sent us searching for meaning first, money second. Social media has transformed global into local. And generation Y, my generation, has grown up believing that they can do anything – especially change the world. Social enterprise is not only mainstream, it’s superbly cool.
Even though there are still no “how-to” manuals, I see more and more women stepping up to carve out their place in this rapidly changing business environment. They are undaunted by the uncertainty. I believe that women play an essential role in shaping what it means to be a purpose-driven entrepreneur with a for-profit enterprise. But if we are going to get ahead and create the impact we know we are here to make, we have to break the unwritten rules of what it means to be a change agent.
Here are four ways to get ahead as a female social entrepreneur:
1. Collaborate with competitors.
It may seem counter intuitive to befriend the founders and organizations that are competing for the same market share as you, but in the social change space, your competitors may be your best supporters. We share the goals of eradicating poverty, solving global environmental issues and reinventing the systems that are pushing us towards an unsustainable future. We face increasingly complex and multi-layered challenges that require dynamic solutions. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there is one nonprofit for every 200 people in the United States – which doesn’t even begin to account for the number of for-profit social ventures that exist. In that kind of landscape, competition cannot be the only driver of innovation. We are spreading our financial, human, intellectual and political resources thin on issues where we have common aims. We have to get over the “hero complex” – the desire to be the one to make the world right – that plagues social enterprise. Women have a chance to embrace collaboration as a tool to build capacity to solve the world’s most pressing problems.
2. Get over the “social entrepreneur” label.
You either are an entrepreneur or you aren’t. The fact that your business has a mission that delivers financial and social returns does not change the requirement that it make sense and there is demand in the market for it. By definition, social entrepreneurs upset the status quo and revolutionize industries. It just so happens that they do this while maintaining a strong commitment to create social outcomes. If you are doing this – and doing it well – the fact that you are a social entrepreneur won’t matter to your customers or investors. Get over the label and focus on using social value to provide a competitive advantage.
3. Hire more women for leadership positions.
A client recently came to me with a concern raised by a member of her board of directors. He had advised her to hire a man and give him the title of co-founder. Specifically, he told her, “You’ll attract more investors and gain more credibility in the [technology] sector.” While it’s true that women are less likely than men to pursue technology and engineering careers, there is also strong evidence that women in leadership positions engender more trust and financially outperform their male counterparts.
4. Invest in personal development.
As a caveat to the point above, being a woman doesn’t guarantee your success as a leader, a change agent or in life. A compelling mission and a strong business model are only as successful as the strength of the individuals that implement them. Early-stage ventures often fail to focus on personal and team development, choosing instead to focus solely on technical skills and market knowledge. Yet, leaders who learn to face their fears, develop their intuition, and translate their inner vision into powerful action create lasting results and are better able to deal with the complexities of change. From the outset, establish a leadership culture by investing in coaching, developing learning communities, and taking the time to engage meaningful dialogue on the issues that matter most to you and your organization. As Warren Bennis says in his book On Becoming a Leader, “First and foremost, find out what it is you’re about, and be that.”
Laura Calandrella is a social change coach, educator and speaker. She helps social innovators unlock the power of their leadership to create a better world. Through her company she provides one-on-one coaching, team incubation, and live + virtual trainings for individuals and organizations who are ready to influence the world around them.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.