The Greater Social Enterprise Promise Highlighted at World Forum

By Michelle Strutzenberger, Axiom News

Author Ron Schultz’s favourite social enterprise story has that engaging blend of the bold, bizarre and exciting possibility – an African start-up that is training rats to detect landmines and saving thousands of lives.

But the greater social enterprise promise is not so much in the creation of these brave, fresh ventures as it is something that’s often more painful, a number of presenters at the recent Social Enterprise World Forum (SEWF) in Calgary said.

Co-operation is the greater social enterprise promise, Canadian entrepreneur and author Al Etmanski says.

He has identified three types of entrepreneurs who must work together to generate widespread social change – the disruptor who dreams up and begins to create the new; the bridger, who translates the new to the rest of the world; and the receptor, who eagerly embraces the change and then spreads it around.

Al is candid about the pain of collaboration, especially with strangers and those with whom we disagree.

But, “imagine if we focus on the goodness of our adversaries, imagine if we stop blaming the other and took responsibility for our own behaviour, our addictive nature, our consumerism, our carbon expenditure, and approached each other with the splendour of our gifts and yes, our imperfections,” Al said during a SEWF plenary.

The implication is in that wide generosity and humility of spirit the difficulty of co-operation will be overcome to yield the kinds of gifts that cannot be birthed any other way.

Two separate labs during the Oct. 2-4 forum provided delegates an opportunity to “practice” this collaboration. They could hear the challenges a number of Canadian social ventures were facing – one being the launch of a social entrepreneurship fund for aboriginal youth – and then work together to figure out ways to address those challenges.

In the space of about five hours designated to each of the labs an almost sacred kind of spirit blossomed in some of the groups. There was a generosity of empathy, deep listening and curiosity on the part of the advisors, humility on the part of the social venture representatives and a rich well of possibility-oriented thinking on all sides.

In an opening SEWF session on the critical mindsets needed to advance the social enterprise sector today, Mary Gordon told stories and provided information to underline the power of empathy.

“Empathy is essential to have in all of our institutions, our businesses, every walk of life, to solve the major issues of our times,” says Mary, who is an educator, author and social entrepreneur. “We won’t change anything if we don’t give a damn about the other who is different from us.”

“Figuring out that we all share the same emotions, that is the connective tissue of humankind,” she adds.

Jack Graham is a young social entrepreneur and the founder of Year Here, a new type of gap year that challenges ambitious and entrepreneurial young people to a year of tackling social issues in their own backyard.

During a SEWF panel session geared to inspiring and informing youth around the possibilities in social impact careers, Jack had a similar message about the crucial importance of both empathy and humility. He said this was especially critical for youth like himself to hear, who might be more inclined to an egotistical perspective as social entrepreneurs — the ones who will “save the world.”

In some ways, it’s not the fault of today’s social entrepreneurs if they do tend in the direction of pride, says director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford University’s Said Business School, Pamela Hartigan.

Since the social entrepreneur concept took the world by storm in the late 90s, there has been a huge emphasis on lifting up and celebrating the achievements of individual entrepreneurs. The result is many of us have been seduced into thinking social entrepreneurs are the heroes who are going to save the day.

But it’s both a supporting team and a larger supporting ecology that will enable these visionaries, as marvellous as they are, to create the kind of systems change the world needs. “Leadership is over-glorified. It’s the first follower who transforms a lone nut into a visionary.” says entrepreneur Derek Sivers in his TEDtalk, How to Start a Movement.

“Social entrepreneurship focuses too much on the noun entrepreneur and not enough on the verb entrepreneuring,” Pamela says, noting few of us are entrepreneurs, as they are typically defined, but we can all be entrepreneuring in whatever organizational type and sector we find ourselves.

The secret to actualizing this effective entrepreneuring is that it’s less about proving our own brilliance and more about identifying what binds us together and how that common ground can be the springboard for an effort that is one in many to help create the world we all want to see.

This story originally appeared on ENP Canada’s website.


ENP Canada has partnered with Axiom News to explore the Canadian social enterprise movement one story at a time. Each story will provide snapshots and profiles of local social enterprises and the emerging, supportive environment. This story is one of hundreds we will be publishing. Check in every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the latest news.


Axiom News is also a SEWF 2013 media partner.


More About SEWF


sewfThe Trico Charitable Foundation was honoured to host SEWF 2013. It made history in a number of ways – it was a first for Canada and attracted a record number of speakers and attendees (1,000 individuals from more than 30 countries and over 100 speakers from 20 countries) – but we are most proud of the quality of the discussions on Skills Building, Social Finance, Indigenous Social Enterprise, Collaboration, Policy and Research, and Social Innovation.


We would like to thank the following partners for making SEWF 2013 possible:


Organizing Partners:

Lead Sponsors:

Presenting Partners:

Supporting Partners:

Friends of SEWF:

Media Partners:

SEWF2014 web bannerEach year SEWF gives a different host country an incredible opportunity to celebrate and nurture its own social enterprise movement. The inaugural SEWF met in Edinburgh, Scotland. Since then it has been to Melbourne, Australia; San Francisco, U.S.A; Johannesburg, Africa; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Learn more about SEWF’s history here.


SEWF 2014 will be held in Seoul, Korea from October 12-16. Hosted by the Work Together Foundation, this significant international gathering has an ambitious agenda: “Social Change through Social Enterprise”. Learn more here.

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