Social entrepreneurs are starting new organizations that combine best management practices with a socio-ecological purpose. They are expanding the boundaries of what it means to do business and innovating new organizational structures to respond to the needs and demands of an aching society.
Working with social entrepreneurs in Mexico is a very rewarding aspect of my work. My role at the Universidad del Medio Ambiente (or University of the Environment) in central Mexico is to create learning environments and facilitate processes that support the development of their projects as well as help in the development of these entrepreneurs as leaders.
Last Friday, I was part of an event celebrating the completion of the year-long environmental entrepreneurs program there. The projects this group of Mexican social entrepreneurs developed this year included organic urban agriculture methods, ride sharing to address traffic in Mexico city, environmental education consulting, and a solar energy provider among others.
The success of a social entrepreneur depends on his or her ability to develop a clear and systemic mission and vision, a sound strategy, and a feasible business model that creates financial viability while fulfilling a social and environmental purpose. Through reflective practice and coaching, our social entrepreneurs refine their presentation skills and hone their message, helping them succinctly and powerfully articulate their value proposition—or the intersection between their passion and the social need being addressed.
These skills are crucial. But even with these skills, a social entrepreneur has to face all kinds of obstacles that may limit his or her ability to compete in the marketplace.
An exclusive focus on results will lead us to only appreciate those social entrepreneurs whose projects succeed according to the current rules of the game. A deeper look at the role of social entrepreneurs, however, allows us to appreciate their role as social change agents beyond their enterprises.
Social entrepreneurs embody a new kind of leadership—leadership that bridges vision with action and values with results; leadership that goes beyond “leading others” and starts with “leading the self.” This type of leadership challenges the ego because what matters most is not theira personal sense of achievement, but an ability to contribute positively to society.
In the process of supporting social entrepreneurs, I have come to appreciate their courage and commitment to attempt what, in the past, was considered impossible or questionable: do well by doing good.
The aspect that I cherish the most is the sense that, together, this community of social entrepreneurs and its support network are willing to try with all their hearts to be congruent, to live their values, and to walk their talk. From this perspective, one can say that social entrepreneurs are exploring ways of being more fully human.
Sustainability is a global challenge. But in every place around the world, it requires a local response. The particularity of the problems—and also of the solutions—is connected to the culture and circumstances of specific places.
Some of the work I’m doing in central Mexico involves coaching ecosocial entrepreneurs and designing learning processes to translate ideas into action to regenerate social and environmental conditions. A few weeks ago, I was part of a learning event that was a collaboration between Syntony Quest, the University of the Living Environment in Mexico, and the German social entrepreneurship organization ThinkCamp. The event was a reunion of ecosocial entrepreneurs and other social leaders from Mexico committed to create sustainable solutions. We took the group to three day camping adventure in the woods near Valle de Bravo. The experience was filled with nature walks, conversations around the camp fire, group games and sharing meals. The purpose was to share experiences from the different contexts of our practice with the intention of establishing deeper connections among ourselves and with nature—those connections, after all, are the foundation of the work we do in the world.
The camp site of our event was high in one of the mountains that surround the village of Valle de Bravo, which is pretty far away from modern civilization. The artificial lake of Valle de Bravo is a an important reservoir that provides drinking water to Mexico City, which is just northeast of the area. The health of the forests in the surrounding mountains is a key factor for water catchment and other critical environmental services. However, the many communities that surround the village depend to a great degree from the forests for their survival.
In preparation for the event, I went with one of the camp guides and two other facilitators to scout the site in order to design the walks and conversations in nature. To everyone’s surprise, many of the trails were blocked and seriously damaged from recent logging. It was a sad scene since many of the trees logged were old growth. This camp site belongs to a rural community as an “ejido,” or “common land,” shared by the people of the local indigenous community. This group’s survival hinges on subsidized, monoculture, agricultural practices and from the selling of fire wood.
As I managed my way through pieces of logs and debris splashed with plastic bottles and other garbage here and there, I experienced a wide range of emotions:
This forest can be sustainably managed. The wood gathered could be transformed by the community into valuable products rather than be sold off as fire wood. There are many herbs and mushrooms that can also be sustainably harvested. There are permaculture projects that can be initiated to increase the food production by and for the community. And many people, like our group of entrepreneurs, would be happy to visit and enjoy hikes and other outdoor activities while contributing to the resiliency of such a magical place.
By the end of the camp, our group considered a simple question: Do we want to have our next gathering in a different place or do we want to come back to this mountain? The idea of learning in nature and with nature is intrinsic to these gatherings, but a new dimension was added: the idea that we need to be reciprocal. We received so much from this place that it is our responsibility to give back. So the agreement was to return to this forest and to this community in the future in order to create an ongoing connection and contribute to its development.
Reflecting on the significance of Mother’s day my daughter told me: “Today, everybody should celebrate two mothers: our birth mother and also Mother Earth.” And she is right: the Earth is loving, nurturing and generous in supporting all of its creatures. What can we learn from our mothers and from the Earth as we seek to lead change toward peace and sustainability?
Mother’s day is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the love, care, and service that we receive from our mothers. A day to appreciate the best of women’s gifts to the world. The maternal instinct is a biological characteristic of women—regardless of biological motherhood—and one of the gifts we can bring forth, as channels of feminine energy into the world.
It is promising to see the increased interest and recognition of the importance and need of this feminine energy in society. But regardless of this progress, there are many cultures and places where women – half of humanity – continues to experience discrimination and oppression. The history of gender inequality has deprived the world and its institutions of the gifts of women. According to the International Labor Organization, 48.4 percent of the world’s female population above the age of 15 are economically inactive, compared to 22.3 percent for men. “More women than men take up low-pay and precarious work, either because this is the only type of job made available to them or because they need to find something that allows them to balance work and family responsibilities. Men do not face these same constraints.” Women do two thirds of the work and get 10% of the income since most of their work does not contribute to GDP: caring for children and elders, house chores, cooking.
We have created an economic system that ignores the contribution of women’s work for the survival and well-being of our species.
Riane Eisler’s organization, the Center for Partnership Studies, has launched a campaign for Caring Economics which seeks to make this invisible work visible as a strategy for a more just, humane, and sustainable future.
Eisler is among the social scientists who connect the lack of appreciation for activities and attitudes traditionally qualified as feminine as a root problem for the contemporary socio-ecological crisis. Caring for others, connecting, promoting open communication, non-violence, flexibility and empathy are stereotypically feminine but not exclusive of women. We all know compassionate and sensitive men and women truly interested in the well-being of people and planet. I like to think of these men and women as simply more fully human.
And “more human” human beings—people with greater integrity and with balanced feminine and masculine energies—are what families, communities, organizations and society at large need. Economic prosperity, social well-being and ecological regeneration require caring for the whole. There is no such thing as the exclusive or isolated interests of an individual person, organization, or nation. We are interconnected, and a viable future depends on our ability to act on this understanding.
Social enterprises such as B-Corporations and the emergence of the Fourth Sector are indications that a new generation of leaders are putting into practice this way of thinking and feeling. Businesses with social missions, non-profits that generate their own revenue, and other forms of hybrid initiatives are blurring the boundaries of what used to be fragmented into private, public and social initiatives. Problems such as poverty and the wide range of environmental challenges require more holistic ways of being. Women have the innate capacity and the responsibility to lead the way.
I volunteered to go with my daughter’s 5th grade class on a field trip to the Laguna Uplands Preserve. During this visit, the children had the opportunity to be in a natural outdoors classroom where they were able to collect samples and conduct scientific tests to learn about water quality and to identify macroinvertebrates.
Identifying microscopic life might have been the learning objective from a traditional academic perspective. However, the lessons learned went beyond. In addition to observing, presenting and recording their findings – all left brain activities—the children practiced collaboration, active listening, interpretation, meaning making. They discovered the interrelations between the health of the land and our human activities and lifestyle choices. They experienced that nature is fun even if it is cold and rainy, that playing in the mud is educational, and that the natural world is full of wonders waiting to be discovered.
As I witnessed and participated in this field trip, I reflected on how unusual this type of learning experience continues to be for most children. The mental model of the educational system in the United States – and in most countries around the world – is still machine age and not responsive to the challenges of today’s society, let alone of tomorrow’s.
Tomorrow we will be facing increased complexity and uncertainty. Food security, water shortages, natural disasters, health concerns. The tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan is a contemporary example of the challenges we will continue to face. They will require resilience and adaptability to the dynamics of the natural world and forward thinking and innovation to redesign organizations and communities in sustainable ways.
We are not preparing our children—or our ourselves—for these challenges. Instead, we keep repeating the same patterns.
Integral responses to the complexity of contemporary global and local challenges—personal, organizational, planetary—require an expanded perspective: a way of recognizing interconnections, of perceiving wholes and parts, of acknowledging processes and structures. But most important, they require the participation of each and every person in the creation of a new world. Individual solutions and breakthrough ideas are necessary but not sufficient. Real opportunity to affect change arises from the systemic synergies that we create together. It is our task to create systems of shared solutions that arise from the genius of every human being. To do so, we need to create an ecology of new ways of working, learning and living that embody social and environmental integrity.
The more we keep our children away from the ecology of the natural world, the less they’ll understand the interdependence of the earth—and the harder it will be for them to grasp the concepts we need to survive.
In a recent conversation with a colleague in Mexico, we were exploring ideas about new business models to address poverty. He pointed out that our ideas were about how to create income opportunities through access to larger markets of products and services of people in need—that is, a solution within the confines of the current economic system. He asked: why do they need income?
This question pushed us to think differently. Why are we trying to include them in an economic system that is at the root of many of the unsustainable patterns of today’s world? We need to think out of the box: What do we need to know to create local living economies? To live healthy and happy lives? To have peace and joy as part of our daily experience?
We need to get out in nature more often to foster this kind of thinking. After all, there are no boxes in nature.
The recent ecological disaster caused by the BP oil spill shortly after Earth Day is a reminder of the gap between the sustainability talk and the sustainability walk. The past 10 years of environmental awareness and activism have led to needed attention and some changes. Good intentions such as moving “beyond petroleum” made it into corporate slogans, but when it comes down to practical commitments, responsible action is less attractive than doubling profits.
In the eyes of consumers and business people, green products and services are the solution to the world’s problems. They aren’t.
Green lawn care is great and carbon offsets are wonderful, but they are not fundamental change. They are the next wave of consumerism and materialism, a little bit less bad, but still contributing to environmental and social problems. Many well intentioned social entrepreneurs are going out with new ideas while grounded in the traditional business mindset. This fundamentally unchanged “business as usual” mentality, disguised with a bright shade of green, is fueling limited solutions that exacerbate the problems they were hoping to address. Take for example energy bars wrapped in foil and shipped from developed countries to feed hungry children in developing nations. The carbon footprint, the waste, the limited nutrition, and the dependency on aid created by this “solution” are far from a systemic approach that would include restoring ecosystems to create right livelihood and a reliable food supply to feed people and nurture the human spirit to revitalize those communities.
Real solutions will only come about if we can get beyond “sustainability as usual” and reexamine fundamental questions about how we relate to the world, and to each other. We need to mind the gap between what we say and what we do, we should not be willing to continue to live fragmented lives.
To succeed as good global citizens, cutting edge organizations will need to look beyond complying with certain eco-efficiency standards or to the achievement of a green certification. That may be a good beginning, but the creation of thriving organizations and communities takes more than that. It requires that every aspect of the process, and not just the product, be sustainable – in a holistic way.
Perhaps the biggest change will come with the realization that we can never be fully “sustainable” – that sustainability is a never ending journey, a learning process to explore what it means to be fully human in an interconnected world.
In our research, Dr. Alexander Laszlo and I have come to call this perspective on sustainability, beyond market solutions and green products, the human dimension of sustainability: the emotional link between what happens in the world – in this planet – and our personal choices that enables the evolution of our consciousness and our cultures.
Sustainability, from this perspective, is systemic. It begins when we are able to understand our place in a web of economic, social, cultural and ecological systems – relationships that have always been there but that we have ignored in our single minded focus for profit and economic growth. It encourages diversity as a key condition for a viable system, and embraces the responsibility to live in ways that allow others to live as well. Sustainability involves waking up and assuming our personal and collective power as leaders to shape our present and our future. It signals the time to stop the consumerism machine that has dictated what we should have or desire. It is a call to start listening to ourselves, to engage in deep conversations to understand and honor what brings meaning and joy to our lives, and to pay attention to the way we affect and are affected in everything we do.
John Elkington frames the move beyond “sustainability as usual” quite simply: ”we must now raise our collective sights from technologies and business models—important though they are—to psychological, social, and even civilizational change.”
So where do we begin? Right where we find ourselves: in the communities and organizations where we work, learn, play and live. Moving toward more just, peaceful, healthy and viable futures for all will require collaboration and shared leadership: people willing to stand for the principle that cost effective decisions that damage the common good are not profitable. We are reaching a point where the public will demand nothing less. From an organizational systems perspective, the true challenge presented to leaders committed to fostering sustainability is the ability to manage the tension between different interests and design processes that leads towards a collectively desired future.
NOTE: This post was originally published by the blog Triple Pundit on May 17th, 2010.