What Barack Obama and Social Enterprise Have in Common

With the new academic year kicking off, the debates and discussions are well underway.   Skoll Scholar Mark Hand takes a moment to reflect.

Image: "Watch" by famousafterdeath

During the 2008 US presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama described himself as a human Rorschach test, an amorphous inkblot in response which Americans revealed their own motivations, biases, hopes and fears. Social enterprise, I have found, has similar inkblot qualities. In two years as an impact investor, I’ve met i-bankers looking to social enterprise to provide more meaningful work, nonprofiteers seeking rigor and efficiency (and/or higher paychecks), and college students spotting an opportunity to make a mark in a increasingly high-profile field. Within the world of social enterprise stand a number of Ayn Rand acolytes convinced that The Market–being the answer to everything–is the natural path to poverty eradication; in the same arena exist leftists with dreams of transforming the financial system through the Trojan Horse of patient capital. Conversations about social enterprise, like conversations about Barack Obama, can reveal more about speaker than topic.

That’s fine with me: I am much more interested in what attracts people to social enterprise than in nomenclature. What motivates them? What values do they hold dear? What issues do they care about? What kind of environment do they want to work in? How risk-tolerant are they in their career? What do they get a little nutty about? As befits an incoming MBA, I have spent much of that summer searching for my own answers to those questions. I have a long-held interest in the US’s relationship to Latin America and Hispanic migration to the US, for example. I enjoy teaching and learning in equal measure. I gravitate toward other people–especially entrepreneurs–that are building things and tackling issues where others won’t. I get energy from the tension that comes from putting disparate cultures, ideas, and people in conversation.

In social enterprise I spot one opportunity to pull those thing together. But those motivations are my own, and the motivations of my classmates are as diverse as the countries and industries we come from. Over the next year I look forward to hearing my classmates’ answers to these questions as we argue the parameters, promise, and pitfalls of social enterprise.