When the learning curve is a wall

The hybrid nature of innovative business

The Roundtable on Social Entrepreneurship with Leticia and Victoria Hale that Pamela facilitated was one of the highlights of the conference (although it is hard to generate a ranking because everything was of such high caliber). “Real systems change is not just [the provision of] palliative goods and services,” Pamela explained. Systems change requires forging “partnerships […that…] leverage off each other in the positive sense to create synergies.” Learning how to accomplish this new balance between established modes of doing business (e.g., short-term, bottom line profitability for discrete individuals) with new sustainable modes of doing business (i.e., long-term, continuous resiliency with dispersed community benefits) was the main topic of this roundtable conversation.

Womensphere with Newsweek
Global Summit (Day Two, 25 September 2010)

Manhattan (Goldman Sachs)


Leticia Jáuregui described her experience starting up a business within the rapidly expanding field of social entrepreneurship to Pamela Hartigan, author of The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World.  I cite the whole title of Pamela’s book because I was thrilled to discover such a simple explanation for most of my biography:  I’m unreasonable!  The Global Summit reinvigorated hope that I can leverage this unreasonableness into new market creation which ripples out and contributes to positive changes for the world – especially we people living on earth now  and in the immediate next few generations. I realize this is a species-centric perspective, but there is tremendous potential when such selfishness is coupled within a matrix of relationships. Suddenly your health and well-being is recognizable as deeply intertwined with mine. By extension other living beings and the planet become relevant and valued, too.

The hybrid nature of innovative business

The Roundtable on Social Entrepreneurship with Leticia and Victoria Hale that Pamela facilitated was one of the many highlights of the conference (although it is impossible to generate a ranking because everything was of such high caliber).  “Real systems change is not just [the provision of] palliative goods and services,” Pamela explained. Systems change requires forging “partnerships […that…] leverage off each other in the positive sense to create synergies.” Learning how to accomplish this new balance between established modes of doing business (e.g., short-term, bottom line profitability for discrete individuals) with new sustainable modes of doing business (i.e., long-term, continuous resiliency with dispersed community benefits) was the main topic of this roundtable conversation.

Being (perceived as) unreasonable means one necessarily attracts a lot of negative attention: critiques, people telling you you’re foolish, resistance of all sorts. This can wear you down if you’re not able to apply a productive frame.  “You know you’re on the right path when just about everyone says you’re nuts.”  Victoria matter-of-factly told us about the importance of setbacks, teaching us how to interpret them as a way to “appreciate that the universe is moving.” Rather than viewing resistance and the need to alter or modify plans as a setback, view them as “revelations.”  “You can’t be too much of a fighter, not too committed to ‘my way’,” she told us, otherwise you miss important information about the world that you need to be aware of and adapt to in order to succeed.

“Kill all the Negative People”

Pamela proposed this a bumpersticker, and she’s only half-teasing!  Analisa kept reminding us that leadership and invention do not have to be lonely (at least not persistently and characteristically so), and no one would argue against constructive criticism. But there is a difference between criticism that contributes to one’s understanding about issues relevant to success, and complaints from people whose outlook is systematically negative. “Spend time,” Victoria continued, “with people who get it.” Her work in medical research goes against the grain. “Strategically, we do what the world needs,” and “In R&D, things change.” In practical terms, this means “work[ing] with funders who are very hands-off” and, in Pamela’s words, focusing on “the issue as the unit of development.

Drawing from history, Pamela reminds us, “Many people come together from many different areas to make social movements.”  The challenge, of course, is how to work with the complexity and hybridity of all the various ways difference can cut across contemporary social forms of interaction.  Pamela suggested applying The Three P’s: Passion, Patience, and being with Positive people as a way to assess whether one is “in the right place at the right time.” She distinguished between “entrepreneurs” who don’t stick with bureaucracies for very long, and “intrapreneurs” who chip away from the inside, coming at things from within an organization or institution.

Dismissing the label of “social entrepreneur” as a term that has served its time, Pamela argued that we must begin to distinguish between “value appropriation” and “value creation.” We need “visionary pragmatists” who “refuse to take no for an answer” and thus come up with “fascinating solutions to intractable problems.”

“People are poor, not stupid”

Molly Tschang made this point a bit later in the afternoon during the presentation of Case Studies of Impact of Corporate Investments & Innovations on Global and Local Problems. In a significant way, Molly was talking about the power of “no.” Sometimes, no is the answer which has to be respected! Pamela did not mean “no” is always to be disregarded, she meant “no” should not stop us from persisting – with wisdom and awareness of consequences – in search of the goal. Victoria’s openness was quite beautiful in this regard: “I didn’t know how to ask; I was told.” When we’re working with intercultural differences, we have to become sensitive to nuances along a continuum that spans when it is the difference and when it is our reaction to difference that provides the stimulus for powerful learning.

Victoria, Pamela, and Leticia provided us with living examples from the ground-up of Molly’s top-down challenge regarding, “how to engage the full diversity of resources and bring them to bear on solving issues.”   If the goal is “how to make things work in disadvantaged communities,” then you cannot rely only on top-down policies and institutional vision. Molly insisted “you must adapt” and embrace the fact that “people see where they are” and are able to articulate their daily realities in ways that people from a distance are simply unable to perceive.

Future markets, Peer partnering, and the Wrong Question

Molly told us about a TED Fellow who inquired, “What’s the one thing you want to tell the world?” This, she insisted, is the wrong question.  There is no one thing, “its everything!” We are not, as Pamela put it, “generating the next widget.” We are engaged in behavioral change, systems change, and political processes. Molly encouraged us that the only way forward is to “acknowledge the complexity [rather than] be daunted by it.”  In other words, you’ll know you’re in the right place at the right time when you are aware of multiple realities intersecting in complementary ways.

When you sense the future with a vertical slope of 90-degrees, you are facing the moment described by Pamela as the juncture when “complex problems become opportunities.” You will inevitably be engaged with people who are – in some fundamental way – essentially different than you, and you will consider them peers because the knowledge base they bring is equal and necessarily in proportion with your own experience and skill. Leticia captured the phenomenological experience perfectly: “We started as an idea, got funded as an idea. The reality on the ground? The learning curve is still a wall.”

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