I’ve heard many say before that social entrepreneurs are the new rock stars. I’ve found that it is this narrow and glorified view of the world of social entrepreneurship that has led many with good intentions astray. Those aspiring to enter this field should be told of its true identity. They should be made aware that although worthy rewards exist for the diligent, the work of the social entrepreneur can be more likened to busing tables and cleaning bathrooms than the lifestyle of a Silicon Valley start-up CEO.
When I was 15 years old, I had my second job working at an Italian restaurant busing dirty tables and scrubbing high traffic bathrooms for $8 bucks an hour. Indeed it was dirty work, but without it being done the establishment would have quickly come to a standstill. We should have been treated like the rock stars for our work, although we were often the least recognized. However, the experience was invaluable as I was able to see the importance of picking up societies dishes. No doubt the work of a social entrepreneur is dirty, really dirty, but the most important jobs are often those that nobody wants. There is a dire need for those who can roll up their sleeves and jump in the deep trenches of Urban and even Rural America. It was the act of working alongside the impoverished and disabled that gave me a unique insight into the problems, hopes, and potential of populations often the target of social impact in America.
It makes perfect sense to want to make profit and save the world at the same time. Many brilliant minds coming out of colleges across America are skipping Wall Street for Martin Luther King Boulevards. Many with lofty goals and impact capital backing them still fail to find success and longevity in this complex work. I do not believe that their failure is inevitable, but I do believe that there are no workshops or accelerators that can adequately prepare you for the real thing.
Having grown up on the North Side of Omaha, NE, what some have called “The Most Dangerous Place in America to be Black,” where impoverished neighbors were raised on sugar water, and gunshots rocked us to sleep, it is a far cry from the ideation rooms and eclectic receptions that have become the norm in the field of Social Impact. As the former national spokesperson for MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership since the age of 15, having delivered keynotes at venues such as the Library of Congress and Viacom Headquarters in Times Square, the places I was able to see were a stark difference from the places social impact was actually taking place on the ground. Having worked with populations in over 13 major metropolitan areas over the past 3 years, from mentoring drug dealers at night in the dark parks of East St. Louis, to working with homeless populations in Greek town Detroit, I have found that certain things cannot be taught and can only experienced in this line of work.
There is also a lack of diversity among social entrepreneurs, both ethnic and class-based, and an even lower amount of hands-on work and life experience among entrepreneurs in the field of social impact. If social entrepreneurs are to create real and measurable impact, if the tourist or newly lettered archeologist on their Amazonian mission are to make it out alive (figuratively and literally), then the experiences of those who have survived the jungle should be honored. People want to be empowered from the inside, and not lectured from the outside. The memorization of methodologies can never prepare one for the actual field, only humility can do that. But if social entrepreneurs are made aware of the true conditions, obstacles, and humility needed to achieve measurable results on the ground, we will succeed in creating a new generation of entrepreneurs who not only do business differently, but also change the lives of the populations they seek to serve with genuine human empathy. Creating such a world is one I would love to be a part of.
Ean Garrett, J.D., is the author of two books, "Rebirth of a Dream" and "The Immovable Race", as well as the Chief Innovation Officer of the consulting firm, Infinite 8 Institute, L3C, specializing in the design and finance of social impact systems. Follow him on Twitter & IG: @eangarrett