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Monday, April 07, 2008

Bold Undertakings - Social Entrepreneurship in the Climate Movement

New and better ways of doing things should be a key element of the climate movement. We’re trying to find better ways to generate energy and conserve energy. We’re also trying to find new and better ways to engage people in creating those solutions. Even if you think we need to use a lot less technology, we still need to figure out how to engage people in the solutions at a society-wide scale.

Social entrepreneurship “combines the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination.” (Dees 2001) An entrepreneur is someone who undertakes something innovative, usually a business, but that could also be a non-profit program. Social entrepreneurship blurs the lines between not-for-profit, for-profit and sometimes government, and it is a frame many of us should adopt.

If we are global warming solutions, then many of us are also social entrepreneurs. Anyone who has started an ambitious, new climate action group is one. The Campus Climate Challenge is a social-entrepruneurial venture. Its important to remember that just starting something doesn’t necessarily qualify. A new, mom-and-pop coffee shop isn’t a new or innovative undertaking, just as holding a day of action isn’t innovative. But innovation takes many forms and there is potential for it in anything.

Joseph Schumpeter says that entrepreneurs drive capitalism by revolutionizing production and services. That willingness drives leaders to constantly break down and rebuild infrastructure and perceptions of what’s possible. Whether you like it or not, capitalism has built some pretty amazing stuff in the last centuries.

However, social entrepreneurs aren’t just focused on the business, and markets do not necessarily measure our success. Without clear markers to compete in, social entrepreneurs, those activists seeking to build a better society, have more difficulty in assessing where they are really being effective. And without clear markers for what works and what doesn’t, we have more difficulty scaling up.

I want to share a few examples of social entrepreneurial ventures in recent history that have scaled up quickly, and see what we can learn about our fight for a just and sustainable society.

Donorschoose is a new way of donating money to education. Instead of giving to big organizations, the website guides donors to specific classrooms in need of money for specific projects. This venture went from start-up in 2000, to $21 million in total donations from 64,000 donors.

Terra-cycle is a company that makes products entirely out of waste. Based in Trenton, NJ, this 6 year-old, hugely successful company employs 100 workers, many of whom were previously ‘unemployable’ and is heading towards eliminating the idea of waste.

Being climate positive means working for as high a price on carbon as possible, as big of an investment in solutions as we can get, and as large of a mobilization of people as possible. Luckily, the last two go hand-in-hand. Both Donors Choose and Terra-Cycle are new, innovative, scaling up very quickly, and boldly re-shaping how people think of donations and waste respectively. Both are led by visionary individuals who broke away from a more traditional career path to follow big ideas. They value their employees ingenuity very highly, and they both bridge the line between non-profit and for-profit.

As I near graduation, and the big question of exactly how I fit into the climate movement from here on becomes more pressing, my eyes are starting to see more and more opportunities. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, and I have a sense that the ventures we are bold enough to undertake are going to be key to building a climate positive world.

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