It was 2010 and we wandered over from the Skoll World Forum to check out the happenings at this small, new, funky Oxford Jam event. Wandering between the little rooms of the Oxford Jam Factory, our journey was stunted by an event taking place – many people in a very small room, listening to an animated tall man. We didn’t know the tall man was Liam Black was until we saw him add his business card to the the clothes line of cards. All we knew is that he was the most honest speaker on social entrepreneurship that we’d ever heard.
Five years forward –
That is why, when an opportunity arose to have Black visit Calgary, Alberta, Canada, we didn’t take the easy route. Easy would have been to take a renowned social entrepreneur, who is also a Brit (UK is rightly seen as a leader in the social entrepreneurship space) and a recent author; slap together a basic speaking event; have him come; he will, at least to some degree, conquer; and then on to the next event. But ‘easy’ is not exactly the way of social entrepreneurs, and it certainly is not the modus operandi of Liam Black.
While there is a literal A to Z in Black’s new book, there is a wealth of insights told through the journey of someone who has gone from A to Z, the figurative gamut, of the social entrepreneur movement. We worked hard to take advantage of his depth of experience and plug it into the various segments of Calgary’s social entrepreneur community, an opportunity to bridge the experiences of the UK and Canada. Yes, there was a general speaking event that celebrated the launch of his book, but there were also sessions specifically focused on students, a late night ‘fireside chat’, and a visit with sector builders that included funders, government, and intermediaries.
What sets entrepreneurs apart? “Willingness to jump even when there are reasons not to.”
Both Black and his book meet people ‘where they are at.’ If social entrepreneurship is foreign to you his references to stars such as Jamie Oliver and Fifteen or Mohammad Yunus (who writes an introduction for the book) can draw you in. If social entrepreneurship is new to you, he will help you run the gauntlet of terminology and will soothe the ethical shivers some people get at the notion of making money while doing good. If you are just starting up, there is advice about mission and action. If you are a successful social entrepreneur, there is advice about being humble and taking care of yourself to avoid burnout.
“Kiss, but no tongue.”
Black talks about the need for “cross-sector partnership” and “multilingual efforts” as the key elements to advance social entrepreneurship into the next stage. He commends the engagement of government in the development of the sector, but calls for reflection on the most appropriate role. He asks, “how do we genuinely build coalitions across sectors?” The book includes mention of Wavelength, Black’s effort to connect and train leaders across a wide range of disciplines to build better sector associations and develop smart social finance tools. By the way, if the phrases “cross-sector partnerships” and “multilingual efforts” are puzzling to you, the book also addresses the issue of jargon in the social enterprise sector.
“V is for Values. What you really stand for is shown in your behaviour.”
Liam spoke with every single person who waited to talk to him, and not only answer their entrepreneurial questions, but also know them on a personal level as well.
To watch Black engage with a post-event lineup, to the very last person wanting to speak to him, and see him always smiling and completely engaged, gives you a new-found appreciation of his openness to – and willingness to help – others. We watched him take the opportunity of a brief lull in activity in a packed schedule to engage students, not about who he is, but about their studies and aspirations. In fact, we hear he is continuing to correspond with a number of attendees.
All in all, we held five events with him in the span of 16 hours. To our relief, the ambitious schedule honoured his advice on meetings (yup, that’s in the book too: have at least half an hour in between and no more than three a day).
“Be bold, take risks, stay humble.”
When Liam spoke in front of an entrepreneurial class at Mount Royal University, the MC began to introduce Liam’s impressive resume and accomplishments. Liam shook his head and urged him to not go on. He then proceeded with his talk and his outgoing, honest, and relatable personality came through easily to everyone in the room.
Black and his book find that delicate balance passionately committed to a cause while still being smart enough to see, and courageous enough to call out, its imperfections. For example, while Black is absolutely committed to engaging youth and sees their promise as the next and deeper wave of social entrepreneurs, he is willing to call them on the hubris that they are unique. He told an audience that he is delighted about what youth are contributing to social entrepreneurship, but cautioned them to realize they stand on the shoulders of previous generations – a legacy that needs to be appreciated as much as it needs to be surpassed.
It is a ‘heart on your shirtsleeve’ but ‘head in the game’ approach that is the true value of Black’s book and his ability to resonate with all of the audiences in Calgary. It also explains why, even though he has since left, the ideas he inspired linger on.
To receive a special discount on “The Social Entrepreneur’s A to Z”, email LiamsAtoZ@pioneerspost.com and use the “TricoFoundation” code. With the discount and the postage, the total will be £22, $40 Canadian dollars, per book.