The Age of the Social Entrepreneur

Along with many others, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof spent the week in Davos. What impressed him most? The gathered social entrepreneurs. Not only because they were half as old as the other participants, the statesmen, entrepreneurs and celebrities, but also because don’t wait for others to change the world, but do the job themselves.  

“In the ‘60s, perhaps the most remarkable Americans were the civil rights workers and antiwar protesters who started movements that transformed the country, In the 1980s, the most fascinating people were entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who started companies and ended up revolutionizing the way we use technology. Today the most remarkable young people are the social entrepreneurs.”   

Ashoka, the leading organisation for the new breed of activists, defines social entrepreneurs as individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. They are ambitious and persistent, tackling major social issues and offering new ideas for wide-scale change. Rather than leaving societal needs to the government or business sectors, social entrepreneurs find what is not working and solve the problem by changing the system, spreading the solution, and persuading entire societies to take new leaps.

I share this enthusiasm; for people like 28 year old Sonam Choki, who established the first non-profit traditional art school in Bhutan, where poor children from rural areas get a sound training in the traditional painting and woodcarving techniques. At the same time the school aims to contribute to the survival of the Buddhist cultural heritage of the small kingdom in the Himalayan. Sonam grew up close the art – her father was a leading figure in the national art scene, endorsed by king Jigme Dorje Wangchuck. Her brother runs an artisan shops in Thimphu. When we visited the school in 2006 only boys were able to attend. Now Sonam wants to build a girls hostel as well, and has many other exciting plans such as the construction of a basketball court. 

Another low-key social revolutionary is Youchaou in Mali, initiator of the Mali Initiative, an organisation aiming to break the poverty cycle of the West African country, which ranks as the forth poorest country in the world and were 4 out of 5 people can’t read or write. Youchaou started life as a street child himself, but then got the chance to attend a school he loved. He worked his way up to become a successful interpreter, before building a school from scratch in Bamako in 2004, where poor children can get a quality education through scholarships. The school is deemed to be one of the best in the country, teaching children from a healthy mix of social backgrounds. 

Social entrepreneurs are demonstrating a lot of self-initiative – thereby breaking the cycle of dependency which all too often accompanies Western aid. Yet they also need active support from others: Sonam Choki was lucky enough to meet David Bidwell of the Himalaya Youth Foundation, which supports her with advice and financially. In Bamako, Youchaou joined forces with Australian youth worker Elise Klein und German Jürgen Nagler in order to realize the large vision of reforming the national education system. 

At betterplace we want to enable initiatives like these to take off. As Kristof writes at the end of his column: „There is no limit to the number of social entrepreneurs who can make this planet a better place.“

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