Recently in About Category

Back in the saddle, writing this blog after more than a month away. (NOTE to self: see if blogging saddles are the next great investment.)

What's been going on?

1. Drafted a new book on creating Inclusivity in the United States.  

The aim is see how we can create better, and more inclusive, health, education, economics, and more--right here at home. Kind of a manifesto for dismantling BOP-USA--the system which keeps too many Americans at the Bottom Of the economic Pyramid while stacking the deck to favor the very few.  

My co-author on this effort, Christian Sarkar, and I are now making this book more bite-sized--un-writing it, so to speak--so that its message passes through more eyes, reaches more minds, and leads to more action. 

Stay tuned: this is ready to "pop."

2. Been thinking "local."  

I attended my first-ever BALLE conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Don't let that sentence fool you into thinking I'd been contemplating attending a BALLE event for a while: I had never heard of BALLE until Paul Saginaw, of Zingerman's and a BALLE board member, recently told me about it. Once I attended, it felt like my crowd, and I was amazed that it had been hidden (from me), but in plain view.

This conference rearranged a few pieces in my mental jigsaw puzzle of how best to create change, causing me to re-think some ideas and giving me evidence to reinforce others that had been looking for support.

3. Still on the trail doing interviews.

It's been my privilege to talk to amazing changemakers.  I think I've become addicted.

Many are in Detroit, but the roster is truly international. The more I listen (and learn), the more optimistic I become--whether about innovative approaches to health in Detroit (thanks, Bobby Smith of En Garde Detroit) or about piggybacking on cell phone technology to light up Africa (thanks, Lesley Silverthorn Marincola of Angaza Design).

These interviews form the backbone of two works well underway: 
  1. What I Wish I Knew Then: Becoming a Social Entrepreneur, a book with Cynthia Koenig of Wello and 
  2. a study of entrepreneurship and renwal in Detroit, with Neesha Modi.

My technology (which is not always the latest and greatest--I'm still holding out against smart phones) tells me Summer starts tomorrow.  What does your technology say?

Goals for the rest of Summer include keeping the ol' blog galloping along (better make that trotting) to let you know about the new books and Detroit-based activities, and to share stories, ideas, and lessons learned from the cool folks kind enough to share their experiences with me so that I have something truly of value to share.  Oh, and to avoid saddle sores.

Happy trails!

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New Year, Better World

Happy New Year.  Two Thousand TWELEVE!  

Once again, we appear to have dodged a Y2K meltdown, even if 2012 is supposed to be the year of an apocalypse or miraculous planetary transformation (a "slight" difference in opinion according to which fringe group you listen to).  

But, unfortunately, what we are almost certain to see are political leaders who deny science, organizations that blatantly create "facts" to support their beliefs and self-interest, and a press that fails to call this out (a welcome exception: propublica).

But rather than despair, what can we do?

Each of us has the opportunity and potential to nudge the planet in the direction we want to see it move.  Some of us want to direct our energies towards educational reform, others into creating healthful food systems, others towards preventing human trafficking. Enough nudges compound to create changes that none of us is capable of alone.

How we choose to effect these (or other) changes can be varied to suit our unique talents and perspectives.  Let me explain mine, using a device I call the Changemaker's Cube.

The impact I'm trying to create is centered on individuals -- students and others I have the privilege to reach.  Others may work to change organizations or even larger systems, but my perch as a professor makes a focus on individual change a natural fit.  

Through my writing and teaching, I'm primarily trying to amplify success.  I'm a student of societal change, I study a wide range of approaches, and my goal is to make them better known and more widely adopted (with variation; changing society must be viewed from an evolutionary perspective).  For others, devising new means of change or validating their benefit may be better suited activities.

How do I choose to spread the ideas I want others to know about?  I bring a creative aptitude to my work.  I've devised plays (nothing to fear, David Mamet) and multi-media-based simulations to instruct.  I've had my students collaboratively author a book (minor fail) and create videos with impact (major win).  Even my most technical research articles are written to be readily understood (what a concept!). I want ideas to come alive; I want to inspire action. There are other aptitudes that can guide your efforts, of course, including a facility with technical knowledge, social skills, or a knack for administration.

So, what are my goals for 2012?

  • I will complete and publish my book, with Cynthia Koenig, What I Wish I Knew Then: Becoming a Social Entrepreneur.  It's a roadmap for those aspiring to change the world based on the wisdom of those who have walked the path already.
  • I will expand the ideas in my earlier book to show how social innovations and technological advances work hand in hand in a co-evolutionary fashion.
  • I will work with creativity to amplify world-changing ideas for the benefit of individuals who see the world as it is, reject the deception of those who fight change, and prove, through their work, that we can change the world.
Now, if only our computers don't seize up and the world doesn't burst into flames.  (Happy 2012.)

Do You Hear the Footsteps?

We're in the final turn of August and I hear the footsteps of fall. Believe me, when you live in Michigan, they crunch like snow and are jet-engine loud.  

Fall also means my return to the classroom.  Despite a lifelong love affair with summer, returning to the classroom is stimulating and helps keep me intellectually alive. I'm lucky to have found my groove where I get to teach, research, write about, and work on issues that are truly important to me -- creating a more just, equitable, and prosperous society.

But this wasn't part of a master plan.  I studied music (composition), liberal arts (math and psychology), and then computer science and complex systems before becoming a professor in a business school. Here, I have researched search engines (I'm one Kevin-Bacon-degree away from being there when Google was created), information-sharing software, and other technical issues in information technology before I began to be involved with helping address societal problems.

Many of our innovative solutions to societal problems likewise arise without a fully formed plan.

You may know about Muhammad Yunus, who thought he was donating $27 to the Bangladeshi poor.  He unintentionally launched the modern microfinance movement.

Interview subjects for a book I'm researching on early-stage social entrepreneurship include:

One social entrepreneur who has developed an organization that has sold 50,000 affordable ceramic water filtration devices to the poor in the Dominican Republic and Haiti (FilterPure).  Why? Because, despite having no previous business background, her experience of life in the Dominican Republic compelled her to give back.

Another founded an organization that has become a world leader in preventing human trafficking (Polaris Project). Its genesis?  Its founder, learning of this atrocious, little recognized disgrace, felt an unshakable need to take a stand against it.

Others found their outlet because of chance phone call.  A missed flight.  A mugging.  A vague promise to give back.

So, what are you waiting for?  So many causes cry out for attention. The opportunities for social entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are everywhere.  Don't wait until everything lines up perfectly before you act.

Can you hear the footsteps?  Maybe they're not of fall but of a future you can only discover by pursuing it.

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My daughter graduated from Oberlin College on Memorial Day.  The ceremony took place in a park with little shade on a crystal clear day, the kind you get in the Midwest when the temperature spikes 40 degrees in twenty-four hours.  It was sweltering.


But the true intensity came from the anticipation of what lies ahead, measured in people to be helped, a planet to be saved, lives to be changed.


Of course, the template for graduation speeches is to remind students to remember friends and institution; follow their dreams; and give back to others. 


But Oberlin is different.  A liberal arts college and music conservatory founded in 1833 in Oberlin, Ohio, it admitted women from the beginning, and granted women the first bachelor's degrees in the country in 1841.  In 1835, it became the first college to adopt a policy to admit students regardless of race. 


The town has long had progressive roots as well.  It was a pivotal stop on the Underground Railroad that ushered slaves to freedom in the north.  Residents' of Oberlin and the neighboring town of Wellington efforts in helping a fugitive slave flee to Canada reportedly sparked the Civil War.


Today, Oberlin and its environmental visionary, Professor David Orr, are in the early stages of creating a carbon-neutral, economically vibrant community that brings together town and gown, farm and city, today's needs and tomorrow's demands.  The Oberlin Project is a beacon pointing to the kind of world we can create if we try.


So, there was a rich and storied context as Oberlin's commencement speaker, Dr. Helene D Gayle, spoke about changing the world. 


Dr. Gayle had planned to be a pediatrician but had an epiphany at her brother's college graduation, where an epidemiologist described a successful campaign to eradicate smallpox.  The speech allowed Gayle to see how her own skills in medicine could be more broadly applied in a career in public health, providing her the opportunity to address interlinked problems of poverty, lack of affordable health care, and a broad set of inequities throughout the world. 


Thus was launched her remarkable career, first with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention where her efforts focused on HIV/AIDS; then at the Gates Foundation, where she directed the foundation's HIV, TB and Reproductive Health program; and now at CARE (one of the best known organizations in the world devoted to fighting poverty, supporting women, and bringing about social justice), where she has been President and CEO since 2006. 


All because she was moved by a commencement address.


Some Oberlin graduates undoubtedly were moved by Dr. Gayle's remarks, their futures shifted in positive ways that will be revealed over the course of their lifetimes.  And yet others - including those who want to make a difference in the world - are still searching, despite the glimpse of all things sustainable, equitable, and right about the world that four years at Oberlin exposed them to.  I know, because I asked.  And because I teach students who are also looking to create meaning in their lives.


As a professor at the Ross School of Business I teach courses with titles that are a bit too long, like Solving Societal Problems through Innovation and Enterprise.  In these courses, I want my students to see that innovation can propel for-profit and nonprofit organizations to tackle some of the world's chief challenges: poverty, health care, education, the environment.  And taking these problems on can be done from a sense of opportunity, not just responsibility. 


We discuss ways to dramatically improve health care with cell phones, discarded medicines, and video games.  We consider improving education for children in India with "educational Karaoke," teenagers in the worst Bronx schools by training them as entrepreneurs, and college-ready students in Arica who cannot afford tuition by providing free, world-class college curricula.  We discuss charities run as for-profits, multinational corporations working in full-partnership with slum dwellers, alliances between environmental NGOs and huge retailers who intimately depend on each other for their mutual success through saving the rainforests, and powerful means of harnessing the power of collective action to identify, solve, and accelerate solutions to the world's most pressing challenges.


Why do students flock to these courses?  Because they hunger to combine their intellect and their hearts.  They crave the sense of meaning that comes from creating, especially when they find work that provides them with a means of support and a vehicle to have huge impact.  And mostly because they see the world with fresh eyes, free from the cynicism that that can come from thinking that anything that can be tried, has been tried.


The companies and organizations that are forging a better world need fresh eyes, too.  The practices that have gotten where we are - a physical planet in perilous shape and a socio-economic planet where the distribution of wealth and access to life's necessities (let alone luxuries) is more skewed than ever before in history in favor of the "haves" - are not the same practices that can lead us to a planet capable of sustaining us physically or providing a secure, healthy world that truly creates opportunity for all.


Graduation is both an end and a beginning.  It is a time to reflect, give thanks, and seek renewal.


To my daughter Hannah I say, 

"Congratulations on completing your degree. I'm so proud of you.  As you take your Oberlin degree into the world, I know we are lucky to have you joining the fight for a more sustainable world.  Lead, take action, and become a life-long student."  (The word "student," derived from Latin, suggests study, scholarship, and learning - not necessarily formal education, you know.)


And to students everywhere - whether you're enrolled in a degree program; striking out on your own as a (social) entrepreneur; working in an organization; or possibly running one - I say, 

"There's never been a time we've more urgently needed new ways of addressing the societal issues in front of us.  There are innovative ways for business to seek opportunity to serve, rather than acting purely with greed, frustrating progress, or withholding their formidable talents that could be used to create immeasurable benefits.  It's time to see the world with fresh eyes and create a better world.  It's time for us to graduate from old ways, which no longer serve us, and look at the world anew."


I have had the privilege to teach and learn from "students" of all stripes who want a more just society: those enrolled in my classes of course; but also those who I've worked with and supported on the ground in inner cities and the farthest corners of the planet;  officials of organizations devoted to a more equitable society, whether they occupy corner offices or cramped quarters in an attic; and like-minded do-ers seeking to make inroads against injustice through the provision of clean water, access to microfinance, more sustainable food systems, the elimination of homelessness, to name a few areas.


I invite you to join me in exploring a new world where we solve societal problems through innovation and enterprise.   Let us learn together.

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