It's easy to be discouraged, even cynical, these days.
We're inching towards defaulting on our national debt. China is worried we're acting like a third world country playing financial chicken.
As our government sputters over issues of consequence, the House did just muster the "courage" to pass one bill to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from enforcing the Clean Water Act and another to prevent the Energy Department from enforcing higher energy standards for light bulbs.
(Why was I surprised that I saw a car on the highway today with a bumper sticker that read, "I support global warming"?)
We are starting to get used to our middle of the international pack stature in education. U.S. 15 year-olds scored below the developed world (OECD) average on mathematical literacy (and well behind China and Singapore). In science literacy we did better: about average. (Want your kid to be better in math? You could send them to Korea, Finland, Iceland, Slovenia, or the Slovak Republic.)
Other statistics reveal that health care in Cuba is better than ...
... no: Let's look at why we should be hopeful!
I'm writing a book to support social entrepreneurship. Tentatively titled What I Wish I Knew Then: Becoming a Social Entrepreneur, the book uncovers and addresses the questions and issues holding back early stage social social entrepreneurs.
In the course of researching the book, I've been talking to social entrepreneurs from around the world (including my co-author, Cynthia Koenig, founder of Wello), who are working on problems spanning the spectrum of societal ills. Here are very brief profiles of two of them.
Derek Stafford never intended to start a social enterprise. He started two. Stafford is a political scientist with expertise in the mathematical properties of social networks (stuff like how many links to Kevin Bacon, which truly is important in studying power and influence). La Unión, Honduras, provided the perfect spot for his research, its geographical isolation and rich tapestry of personal connections creating a social network with just the properties he wished to explore.
Stafford and team did extensive research on the ground, mapping relationships among people who had long histories with others in the community, even if they typically only knew them by their first names. To compensate them for their time, Stafford wanted to provide something of value to La Unión -- but what?
The region produces outstanding coffee, but most residents, working for much wealthier coffee growers, earn subsistence incomes. Stafford launched Unión MicroFinanza to provide microloans (in the form of fertilizers and coffee inputs) to small farmers, extended them credit, and purchased their coffee through his second social enterprise Microloan Coffee. He also banded farmers together into a coop and encouraged them to use the coop's market power to improve their bargaining power with him. He is looking at the role of crop insurance and price guarantees to further support small coffee farmers in La Unión.
Maria Springer's route to social entrepreneurship was also serendipitous, but perhaps less surprising. She was about to join the Peace Corps after receiving a bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations when she received a phone call from her cousin asking if she'd like to be part of a local solution to local problems in Kenya. The call changed her life.
At the age of 22 she founded Kito International along with Wiclif Otieno. The organization trains Kenyan "street youth" and employs them as as salespeople through Kito's companion organization iSmart. The street youth, who formerly endured all the hardships that confront the homeless everywhere, now earn steady salaries.
Through its deeds and relationship building, iSmart has gained the support of suppliers who provide products such as solar lights and LED lamps on credit. The Kito-trained sales force provides "last mile" sales and distribution, benefiting themselves, suppliers, and the slum residents who can't easily obtain the kinds of beneficial products that the former street youth sell.
Derek and Maria both excelled in school, have palpable drive and energy, and have countless opportunities they could pursue. And they are working to make a true difference in the lives of those who are eking out a living. Their work reflects the their humanity, commitment, and integrity.
There are more Dereks and Marias today than ever before. Perhaps all the things that make it tough to get a foothold in today's ultra-competitive job market are tipping people (and not just young people) towards social entrepreneurship.
But I think it's more than that. In a world where traveling and living internationally are more and more common; where communicating with one (or thousands!) of people is just as easy if they are half-way around the world or next door; and where there is more opportunity than ever to receive support for an idea that can change the world -- in that world, our world, we are seeing an awakening to a life of purpose.
That world is a world that should encourage us all.
Postscript: As this blog entry marinated in my drafts folder, Google just announced the winners of its first ever science fair. The winner, a 17 year old girl, discovered how a cellular energy protein might help a cancer drug become more effective. The winners in the 15-16 and 13-14 age groups, also girls, studied the effects of air quality on lungs and how to control the carcinogens produced by grilling meat, respectively.
It's easy to be discouraged, even cynical, these days.