I am not an entrepreneur

entrepreneurPeople tell me I am—I have been involved with starting two organizations—but for some reason, I can’t stomach calling myself an entrepreneur.  I have many entrepreneurial friends who are wonderful people motivated by making the world a better place, having a flexible work life/balance, or pursuing an idea they are passionate about. But to me, they don’t fit the entrepreneur archetype that’s stuck in my mind.

It reminds me of sport coats with jeans, whiteboards with primary-color diagrams strewn about. It brings up images of Silicon Valley—where I’ve never been—and the endless churn of innovation, profit, innovation, profit, innovation, profit. When I think “entrepreneur,” I think slick, hype, exclusivity, excess, greed.

Entrepreneurship has been corrupted. I don’t know when—maybe it was with the release of the film the Social Network, maybe it was the tech bubble of the 1990s— but entrepreneurship has become a lifestyle, rather then a means to an end. It’s now “cool” to be an entrepreneur. People are drawn to the entrepreneurial scene, and there are countless conferences on entrepreneurship and “innovation” to fill this desire. Search around the internet for just a few minutes and you’ll find too many blogs spewing advice on how to start your business and grow it—without care to the most important question an entrepreneur should ask: “Why create in the first place?”

Entrepreneurship is all about solving problems. Finding a need in society and filling it. This is why I see no distinction between social entrepreneurship and entrepreneurship—if you are a moral individual, your offering as an entrepreneur by definition will solve some kind of societal problem, whether that’s clean water accessibility in Zambia or ease of sharing photos amongst your friends.

But now we have a fetishization of the entrepreneurial lifestyle, with people wanting to quit their jobs because they think it’d be fun to go out and start their own company—or worse, they think they should go out and start their own company. They see entrepreneurship as a symbol of honor, a badge of courage. It isn’t. It’s one way of many to get stuff done.

For example, myself. I’ve helped create two organizations, but I didn’t set out to found anything. Instead, I saw needs and tried to do the best I could to fill them. In college, I realized that there wasn’t a lot of discussion or awareness about microfinance among the student body. I brought some friends together and we started what is now the Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell, which has loaned out over $50,000. After I graduated, I became fed up with the blogs I was reading focused on sector-specific social change and decided there needed to be a place to discuss social change from all perspectives. What came from that need is now UnSectored, where we partner with organizations to help them critically examine issues related to their work.

Of course, there are many different ways to solve these problems. You don’t have to start a new organization to fill a need. Intrapreneurship harnesses the existing resources of organizations to develop new products and services. Cross-sector collaboration and public-private partnerships combine the strengths of different organizations and sectors to offer new services, improve communities, or research and develop new products. Community organizing leverages the power of individuals to push other actors into changing behavior.

These are all options for you if you want to change something. (And it’s totally cool if you do not—as long as you aren’t hurting people, I’m not going to tell you how to live your life.) But if you do, I ask that you continue to ask this question of yourself: What am I trying to solve? Let that be your guiding path, not what seems cool or interesting. Stick to this question and maybe we can re-claim entrepreneurship for its true purpose: Solving problems.

Until then, I think that dirty feeling I get whenever I hear the word will stick around.

Photo credit: Mark Darnell


What’s your question?


What’s your question?

I spoke with Lucy Bernholz recently, and she said something that dramatically shifted the way I think about my professional life. Lucy is someone I greatly admire and, in my opinion, is one of the leading thinkers and doers of the social sector. During our conversation, she told me she never sat down and charted a path for her growth. She never came up with quarterly goals or yearly plans. Instead, she has always followed the path of what she called her “one question.”

She said all of her career has been built around the answer to this one question that has been nagging her in the back of her head for years. She said she didn’t know how to articulate it at first, but over time she has been able to understand it more clearly.

To her, that question is “What’s private, what’s public and who decides?” If you know her work, that question makes perfect sense. If you don’t, you might not understand what she means, but that doesn’t matter, because she understands it. And she has been working to find the answer, or at least get closer and closer to the answer.

In a world of five-year plans, goal setting and key performance indicators, it is refreshing to meet someone driven by pure curiosity. Sometimes, we can get too focused on a particular goal or a particular action that we forget why we are doing it in the first place. Entrepreneurs especially can become trapped by the tunnel vision of execution and lose sight of the broader problems they are trying to solve.

I’ve never been fond of goal setting. I do it, because can be useful for certain things. But when setting off on an ambiguous path without clear metrics, I’ve found it less useful to set time-sensitive goals for myself. Following a question—such as, “How do I make this organization sustainable?” or “How do I achieve more work/life balance?”—can be more helpful. Using a question as a guidepost centers you back to what you ultimately want to achieve.

Lucy took this one step further and used a question to guide herself through her professional life. This question became her guidepost as she explored the world around her. She never turned down the opportunity to have a conversation, whether that was in an amphitheater full of people or as a part of a small dinner group or through a blog post. Not only has her question helped her create a successful career for herself, but by following it every direction she could, she’s explored areas she didn’t think she would and contributed to the betterment of society in new ways. Rigid career goals wouldn’t have allowed for that.

I’m still figuring out how to articulate my question—I think it’s something along the lines of “Why don’t we work together to solve problems?”—but after re-thinking how to approach my career I feel much freer to pursue what excites me, and I’m not so driven by what I think should be constructing for myself: yearly goals to speak at five different public events, writing for ten different blogs. Instead, I’m pursuing my question and finding ways to talk with people about it. Success will come to me the closer I get to finding my answer.

I think we’d all be happier if we could stop focusing on a strict career path we (or others) lay our for us, and instead find one question we are passionate about a pursue it to the extent we can—maybe that’s through work, or maybe that’s in our spare time.

So, what’s your question?

Photo credit: omcoc



Nonprofits, B corporations, government, and more!

lightblubsDepending on where you work, you may notice something interesting about the social sector these days: It isn’t full of just nonprofits anymore.

The social-good sector is expanding. In addition to nonprofits, many businesses, social enterprises, and government agencies are leveraging social innovation and cross-sector collaboration to tackle some of our most pressing problems.

For social change, this growth presents an opportunity to leverage the strengths of each sector. Nonprofits can serve populations others can’t and be more aware of community needs, where as businesses can quickly adapt to shifting demands. Government brings massive amounts of resources to any project and can help things scale. No single sector can accomplish sustainable change on its own and working together, organizations from all sectors can achieve way more than they could alone.

For job seekers, this growth presents an increase in opportunities to create change, but also a new set of questions and challenges. Here are some tips on how to navigate the new social-change landscape.

Go beyond passion

According to a Net Impact study (pdf), social impact is becoming a prime motivator for employees, particularly students about to enter the workforce, so odds are your competition will be just as passionate as you are. Having generic motivations for giving back will not get you far in an interview process. Instead, learn the specifics of the organization as an effective change agent, how it’s making an impact, and why. Focus on getting your hands dirty as often as you can through volunteering and internships at mission-driven organizations so you better understand how organizations are working in this new ecosystem. Think about what talents and skills you bring to help the organization move forward. Bringing this knowledge out in the interview process will put you far ahead of your competition.

Understand other sectors

While the reality is that the sectors have always worked together, in these times of scarcity, if you want to accomplish large-scale change you need to reach outside your organization to work with others. More and more, social-impact organizations need people who understand other sectors and leverage what is going on outside their organization to supplement internal programs and activities.

This doesn’t mean you need a career in banking before pursuing your social-impact career. Understanding the language of different sectors and paying attention what’s happening outside your own areas of interest can go a long way in connecting with others. To start, subscribe to some of the websites that talk about trends and opportunities in each sector. You can find a few by searching through categories on alltop.com and reading cross-sector websites like Stanford Social Innovation Review and Aspen Institute. When crafting your resume and cover letter for potential jobs, let your knowledge of the position shine by using the right language.

Be nice

Ok, so this is just good life advice. But it’s even more important when creating social impact today. Working well with others, both internally and externally, is a must in our more collaborative society. Organizations need connectors and facilitators, and doing this effectively can be more challenging than you think. Cultivating facilitation and networking skills will serve you well throughout your career, no matter where you end up.

The sooner we can embrace this shift toward working together, the sooner we can accomplish big things.

A version of this post appeared on Idealist Careers.

Photo credit: Peshkova, Shutterstock