Social Entrepreneurs at the Academy of Management


This subject was highlighted in quite a few individual sessions. I listened to several panelists discuss social entrepreneur courses and their underlying premises. All those I heard spoke primarily about poverty alleviation in developing countries. Micro-financing, as popularized by Nobelist Mohammed Yunus, was one of the key themes. Two had students in their class create and operate a small fund in African countries. Others focused on providing some form of appropriate technology. One example was an irrigation pump to be driven by a bicycle. The idea came a cropper because the local population would not disassemble the bikes they relied on for transportation. The professor used this to point out the need to understand local customs and culture.

Without any judgment as to the importance or effort toward poverty alleviation or creating social justice, I want to point to another area of high social importance that does not fall into these two dominant categories but is also essential to create sustainability. This is the need for professionally trained entrepreneurs in developed countries to create and grow local economies and the internal organizations they require.

Reducing levels of consumption in affluent countries is an essential step in stabilizing the present planetary system. I hesitate always to use the grammatical form "sustainable X" because the adjective places the focus on the wrong place, but I make an exception in this case and refer to the objective as establishing a system for sustainable consumption. I don’t know what this means in quantitative terms, but there is no question that getting there will require radical changes in the economic definitions, accounting, and provisioning systems. Changing the metrics and definitions of basic economic entities like wealth or work will require acceptance from the established power structure in virtually every developed economy. Social entrepreneurs, other than community and political organizers, would seem to have limited roles here.

These limits do not apply in introducing alternative economic provisioning infrastructure, that is, the structures and procedures used to produce and deliver goods and services. Among several general concepts here is that of localization--the creation of local systems of production and distribution of goods like food and services like repairing. The book I have been reading and reporting on, The New Economics of Sustainable Consumption, has several examples. One is Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS). I have extracted the next few paragraphs from an academic paper by Briceno & Stagl.

In essence, LETS are systems of exchange among people in a community where members can offer any service or product they are able and willing to provide and purchase other goods and services offered in the community. There is a tendency to promote services over products as people develop ways to provide utility from tools and resources at their disposal. They operate at the community level and promote economic self-reliance. The main priorities of LETS are to create social cohesion.

The connection to sustainability transcends simply bringing levels of consumption under control and extends directly to the human dimension.

The fulfilled need most identified was that for ‘friendship’, intended to correspond to the need for affection. The examples given for the satisfaction of this need included the following comments: ‘meeting like-minded people who are environmentally aware’, ‘the benefits of this programme when one feels alienated in society’, and ‘the chance to interact and meet people I would not have met otherwise’. Hence, LETS have provided new outlets of economic activity that operate in a socially stimulating manner.

The tie between LETS and similar schemes to social entrepreneurialism is the importance of educating a stock of professionally trained operatives and managers that can start up such enterprises and, most importantly, keep them operating. The article I quote notes that many of the LETS fail to survive beyond the initial period when expectations and energy are high. Their conclusion, among other causes like inadequate funding, is that it is the lack of competency is a major contributor. What I heard about entrepreneurialism at the Academy of Management meeting follows the old story of the cobbler whose children run barefoot. We are looking to repair the ills of poverty and injustice far from home, but miss the problems right under our noses.