Three Takeaways in my First Steps as a Social Entrepreneur
This post is written by Armand Tossou, a Fulbright scholar from Benin who is an MBA Candidate in the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA program at Colorado State University. Armand and his co-founders Yesse, Aaron, and Leana, are starting a social venture that will support rural farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa through increased access to agricultural technologies.
Until fall 2013, I had lived in my home country (Benin) and entertained big dreams about weeding poverty out of the African Continent. Now I am studying social entrepreneurship at Colorado State University in a path-breaking MBA program called Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise (GSSE), as a Fulbright grantee. The purpose of this personal story is to share the outcome of the metamorphosis that I have been through, a change in perspective which can be summarized into three takeaways in my first steps as a social entrepreneur: realism, a positive attitude, and the myth of innovation.
Being born and raised in Benin offered me the opportunity to witness firsthand the daily struggles of people at the base of the economic pyramid. The challenges ranged from low literacy rates, food insecurity, limited access to healthcare, poor transportation infrastructure, and inefficient public services, just to name a few. That exposure motivated me to give up a promising career in finance and accounting, and embrace socialentrepreneurship, hoping to help end poverty in Africa.
Fast forward to my very first classes as a ‘GSSEer’, which brought a number of facts to my attention, I quickly realized that poverty is a massive and complex challenge, deeply rooted in intricate cultural, economic, environmental and governmental realities. In addition to the harsh reality of global poverty, my classes showcased brilliant social enterprise initiatives created by smart individuals with the blessing of well-to-do people, which even still ended in perfect chaos. Two case studies of those failed social enterprises were the One Laptop Per Child initiative in Indi and the Play Pump project in Africa: both ambitious, well-meaning, well-funded projects that have struggled to produce results.While poverty alleviation obviously remains a noble and worthy cause, those staggering facts soon formed a ‘reality lens’ through which I started looking at my initial social entrepreneurship ambitions.
A Positive Attitude
There’s a very fine line between realism and pessimism when it comes to social entrepreneurship. The successful cases I studied in class as a ‘GSSEer’ kept me from crossing that line. More than anything else, the outstanding success of Aravind Eye Hospital in India left a lasting impression on my mind. I was inspired by their ability to do well financially while delivering high quality eye care to the poor free of charge. Additionally, the organization, founded by Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy during his retirement years, has quickly expanded and risen to a status of global reference.
Convinced that social entrepreneurship can succeed even under extreme conditions, I have decided to contributeto the global poverty alleviation effort. With three other ‘GSSEers’, I endeavor to formulate an innovative solution that will help farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa increase their income by enabling access to appropriate agricultural technologies. Upon finalization, our venture will first be implemented on a small scale – most likely in Uganda – before we consider its full scale enrollment across the African Continent. There is a popular saying that ‘hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works’. The same holds true for social entrepreneurship. Although our venture has no guarantee of success, as entrepreneurs a positive attitude will help us give it a shot.
The Myth of Innovation
The development challenges that I have been exposed to throughout my life in Benin gradually generated the solid belief that it would require particularly original thinking in order to bring about effective solutions. Not until I became acquainted with the perspective of Dr. Jerry Sternin and Paul Graham did my philosophy about innovation change altogether. With his ‘Positive Deviance’ concept, Sternin urges solution seekers to copy success rather than seek to innovate. He first demonstrated that principle in 1991 in Vietnam, by finding an effective and replicable solution to widespread child malnutrition within six months. The feat was accomplished not by inventing a nutrition program, but by identifying families in four Vietnamese villages with healthy children (positive deviants) and copying their nutrition habits. Graham offers the same piece of advice in his blog post, ‘Copy what you like’. After all, what is the point in reinventing the wheel?
My team makes good use of the positive deviance principle in the formulation of our venture idea by scrutinizing business models from many organizations that have established records in providing either the same or similar solutions to farmers across the globe.
In summary, my route through the GSSE MBA thus far has been sprinkled with life-changing learning points. Now equipped with realism, a positive attitude and a new understanding of innovation, I hope to improve my odds for success in social entrepreneurship.
Photo courtesy of CIAT (Flickr).