I’ve always admired social entrepreneurs, that breed of ambitious people who dedicate their time and energy to improve how we function as a society. Social entrepreneurs are as old as America itself. When Alex de Tocqueville took his famous tour of the new world in the early 1800s, which resulted in the genius of “Democracy In America,” he noted that the strength of America’s social fabric owed a lot to the ubiquity of civic improvement associations — churches, clubs, nonprofits and community groups of all kinds. “The only way opinions and ideas can be renewed, hearts enlarged, and human minds developed,” Tocqueville observed, “is through the reciprocal influence of (people) upon each other.”
That sense of civic spirit remains part of the American grain today. When I think of modern social entrepreneurs, I think of people like Charles Best, who founded DonorsChoose, a platform to aggregate individual donations so teachers can adequately fund their classrooms; Sal Kahn, founder of the Kahn Academy, which is reinventing American education; or Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach For America, which recruits and trains young people to enter the teaching profession.
I know each of these social entrepreneurs personally and can attest to their dedication, drive and determination to improve America’s educational system, which is the cornerstone of our economy and the broader society. But there are many more like them. Some, like the three mentioned above, are focused on the direct creation of social wealth, leveraging personal and corporate contributions to fund their work. Others, like Blake Mycoskie of Tom’s Shoes, combine a traditional business with social goals.
Then there’s social entrepreneurship at the individual level, which shines brighter here in America than almost anywhere else in the world. According to the National Commission on Civic Renewal, the average American belongs to 4.2 voluntary groups and almost 70 percent of us make annual charitable contributions. A global survey found that only Iceland, Sweden and the Netherlands had higher levels of individual social entrepreneurship than the U.S.
That’s all good, but we need to go even deeper as social entrepreneurs, beyond volunteering or financial contributions. We need to make social entrepreneurship personal. We need to take individual responsibility for creating social wealth, for enhancing our collective lives in an orderly community, which is the literal definition of society.
Our society has become coarse, an old-fashioned word for what we are today — ill-mannered, profane, disrespectful, judgmental, polarized. We are quick to judge and even quicker to condemn. And oh, how we love to blame. It’s never “us” that are screwing things up, it’s always “they.” Republicans accuse Democrats of driving America into a ditch; Democrats dismiss Republicans as corrupt and stupid. Cultural elites dismiss rural communities as bumpkins; country folk disparage elites as vain and hypocritical. You get the idea. We don’t trust each other at all anymore.
This lack of trust is a social pandemic. According to Pew Research, Americans “see fading trust as a sign of cultural sickness and national decline. Some also tie it to what they perceive to be increased loneliness and excessive individualism. About half of Americans (49%) link the decline in interpersonal trust to a belief that people are not as reliable as they used to be. Many ascribe shrinking trust to a political culture they believe is broken and spawns suspicion, even cynicism, about the ability of others to distinguish fact from fiction.”
Traditionally, we look to leaders to dig us out of swamps like this, like Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Churchill during World War II, or Abraham Lincoln when he reinvented a new America in 272 words on the battlefield of Gettysburg. And that is still true today. We do need authentic, even-handed, inclusive leadership, what a friend calls “transformative” leadership. At the very least we need role models of leadership that are honest, energetic, open-minded and decisive. Today, too many elected officials defer to agendas and special interests; business leaders defer to focus groups; and leading media figures defer to ratings. Leadership in America has become transactional at a time when we need it to be visionary and anchored by enduring values.
I have no doubt that a new generation of leadership will eventually rise out of the mess we’re in right now. America always regenerates itself when it has to. But in the meantime, we need to exercise our personal responsibility. This is a social pandemic, and just as it takes personal actions to combat the spread of Covid (masking, distancing, vaxing), we need to take personal steps to combat the corrosion of mistrust and polarization. Like Charles Best trying to build stronger classrooms or Sal Kahn trying to reinvent pedagogy, we all need to become our own social entrepreneurs.
How do we do that? First, we acknowledge that we all have a stake in the health of our society; it can’t be outsourced. Second, we need to be mindful that our actions and our attitudes — even small or seemingly inconsequential ones — have consequences. And third, we need to turn this acknowledgement and mindfulness into practice. As social entrepreneurs, how we live our lives can have a lasting and positive impact on those around us.
Richard Powers gives us a short, memorable manual for how to do this in his new novel, “Bewilderment,” when he paraphrases the Four Immeasurables of Buddhism.“There are four good things worth practicing. Being kind toward everything alive. Staying level and steady. Feeling happy for any creature anywhere that is happy. And remembering that any suffering is also yours.” He remembers his deceased wife using this as a prayer of sorts. “She once told me that no matter how much bad stuff she had to deal with during the day,” he tells his son, “if she said those words before bed, she’d be ready for anything the next morning.” Christians, of course, capture this more succinctly in the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would have them treat you. Versions of this “rule of reciprocity” can be found in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and almost every version of organized religion.
This is the essence of the social entrepreneurship roles we are called to fulfill today — to act as stewards of society, not bystanders; to be kind to one another, as well as compassionate; and to be connected with one another. These are all small acts, but multiplied 340 million times, or 8 billion times, every day, can be exactly the kind of transformative leadership we need.