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How Social Entrepreneurs Unleash Human Potential

April 1, 2013

By Sally Osberg

Excerpted from How Social Entrepreneurs Unleash Human Potential (Rotman Magazine, Spring 2013)

Without ambition, I would argue, dreams risk remaining ethereal and untethered to reality.

Ambition moves human beings from wanting to improve their lives to taking the actions to do so.  Social entrepreneurs harness that force, creating ventures explicitly designed to help people help themselves.  For the disadvantaged populations served by most social entrepreneurs, tangible goals—more income, good jobs, and the dignity that comes with improved social status—matter.

… As Roger Martin and I argued in “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition” [Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2007], social entrepreneurs see and seize opportunities to crack the code on systems that hold human potential in check, setting their sights not just on incremental improvements to a status quo, but on equilibrium change.

The 18th-century French economist Jean Baptiste Say, credited with coining the word ‘entrepreneur,’ theorized in his Treatise on Political Economy that successful entrepreneurship “shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and yield.”

“Social entrepreneurs are masters at harnessing human ambition for good: they understand that when the scaffold to opportunity is built, ambition will make the climb”

Where others cannot see past the sheer scale and deeply entrenched nature of social problems, these individuals focus in on those same determinants: as they see it, the scale of the problem must be matched by the scale of the solution, and institutionalized inequity must be challenged by systemic reform.

…Ambition can seem invisible, but its energy is undeniable.  To social entrepreneurs like those featured [in this article], no resource is as vital to prosperity as that of human potential.  Throughout the world, the ambition of women and men seeking freedom, self-determination, and opportunity is gathering force. Social entrepreneurs grasp the enormity of this momentum, appreciating the vast human potential underlying every data point on poverty, disease, environmental degradation and human suffering. They know that in the decades to come, this veritable tsunami of ambition will change countries, transform societies, and remake the world.


Read the full article to learn how social entrepreneurs Soraya Salti, Dorothy Stoneman, Taddy Blecher, Bunker Roy, and Tim Hanstad harnessed the ambitions of disadvantaged populations who faced obstacles to employment and education in order to fundamentally shift the status quo and create the opportunities to take control of their lives.


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