Capitalism Goes Mother Theresa?


(system) #1

As corporate social responsibility becomes a selling point for image-conscious multinationals, social entrepreneurship is on the rise on university campuses.

Voicebox is a space where expressions of the deeply personal, the spiritual, and the political converge. It is a space where one sees a girl wrestle the microphone with her eyes pressed shut, soulfully crescendoing on the high notes of “His Eye is On the Sparrow” with conviction- followed by spoken-word artists like Poet-X- who conjures up a lyrical assault against the simplistic representation of black youth in pop culture, illuminating complex issues of black identity.

Voicebox is an open-mic event where hip young musicians and poets mingle amongst an unsuspecting crowd, eying the stage before their moment in the spotlight. Housed in a coffee shop across from a popular Riverside nightclub, the event is frequented by college students from throughout the Riverside and Loma Linda area.

“I have a huge phone book of good musicians. Bigger than most good musicians!” says Warren Sturt, the architect behind Voicebox. And he is usually able to cram these musicians, some of them professionals who would otherwise perform for thousands of dollars, onto the same stage for free. As a business-savvy organizer with an eye for talent and someone who sees music as a tool for progressive social causes, Sturt epitomizes the new social entrepreneurship emerging on university campuses.

“These are the social entrepreneurs, the 21st-century answer to the student protesters of the 1960s,” writes New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof (1). It's an appropriate comparison to some degree. For young Americans inspired by chic corporate marketing and the success of online social-networking sites like Facebook that created 20-something-year-old millionaires, entrepreneurship is increasingly attractive. Some, particularly university students- like Sturt, are motivated to apply free enterprise solutions to pressing social problems- such as poverty in the global south. The current may be a far cry from the anti-establishment rhetoric of the 60's but the idealism of the early counter-culture movement is present in social entrepreneurship.

Sturt is a 23-year-old graduate student studying accounting at La Sierra University (LSU). He works as a financial analyst at a leading business firm in the city of Irvine. Outside of his day-job, Sturt is someone who knows how to turn clever ideas into viable business ventures.

In 2007 Sturt and a group of friends launched "Ihavethatbook.com"- a concept that uses online social-networking as the mainstay for a college textbook eBusiness. Students create profiles- similar to Myspace or Facebook- and set up book deals with other students on campus. At LSU, it is a cheaper alternative to campus bookstore prices and it eliminates the hassle of long waiting periods for text-book deliveries from large online book dealers. The website now has a broad network of students and Sturt tells me he's waiting for investors to get on board.

Ihavethatbook.com isn't technically a social entrepreneurship project but it's popularity and success reflects the timeliness of entrepreneurship among young Americans.

A study from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor shows that business start-up rates are higher among America's 18-to-24-year-olds than it's 35-to-44 year-olds, something that makes America stand out among developed countries (2). This is attributable, in part, to the emergence of the Internet as a territory where fresh unconventional ideas like Ihavethatbook.com actually have marketing potential with less start-up capital and less risks (3).

There are also pop-culture influences. New York Times editor Penelope Green writes that teens for some time have been idolizing personalities like Gates and Trump as they would rockstars or athletes, giving entrepreneurship a cool-factor. And former chief editor of CosmoGirl, Atoosa Rubenstain says, “Now it’s social currency to have your own business. It used to be your wardrobe or your sport. Now your own business makes a statement about you and your interests. It almost breaks down into cliques: the future C.E.O. types, the fashionistas making T-shirts, the Webby guys tutoring adults on the computer or selling games on eBay.” (4)

But in spite of the prospects of wealth creation being open even to young adults in developed countries, there is a sense of discomfort filtering into sectors of the business world. It a sense of discomfort owing to the awareness of an economic system that has done little for millions in poverty. This is the basis for social entrepreneurship: injecting humanity into capitalism.

The iconic Mohammad Yunis, founder of the Grameen Bank- the revolutionary micro-credit system offering collateral-free loans to the poor, is the voice behind much of today's social entrepreneurship. He inspired a movement among economic development programs with the Grameen model.

Two years ago in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Yunus articulated a more benevolent vision for capitalism. He argued that the traditional interpretation of capitalism, in which the entrepreneurs role is solely to maximize profits, cuts entrepreneurs off from all “political, emotional, social, spiritual and environmental dimensions of their lives.” And thus the “character of capitalism” could be transformed by redefining the entrepreneur to make room for the social business.

“Social business will be a new kind of business introduced in the market place with the objective of making a [positive] difference in the world. Investors in the social business could get back their investment, but will not take any dividend from the company,” said Yunus, adding that all profits would be plowed into outreach.

In that same speech Yunus prophetically said, “Young people all around the world, particularly in rich countries, will find the concept of social business very appealing since it will give them a challenge to make a difference by using their creative talent. Many young people today feel frustrated because they cannot see any worthy challenge, which excites them, within the present capitalist world.” (5)

Yunus' prediction is becoming a reality among individuals like Sturt, who happens to be an ardent supporter of Yunus' Grameen model.

With Voicebox, Sturt created a community that empowers artists. But he also found a way to harness it's creative energy for the cause of social entrepreneurship. He channels all the hype and creativity of Voicebox into “Sickruns.com”: a website that calls on music and art lovers to partner with organizations such as Kiva (an online micro-financing agency) and “Freerice.com” to develop strategies for addressing poverty.

He also recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe (a country experiencing severe hyper-inflation) where he was involved in starting a farm for Solusi University, a Seventh-day Adventist institution. The farm was one of LSU SIFE's Harambee projects: a program that awards micro-loans to students who devise worthy business plans that serve poor communities. “We don't just give people free money. Because then they wouldn't appreciate their education and they wouldn't be enabled,” says Sturt.

Around the country, other students are taking on similar projects. Andrew Klaber, a student pursuing his JD at Harvard Law School and an MBA at Harvard Business School, founded Orphans Against Aids- a non-profit organization that works to fund academic scholarships for orphans with aids in Asian and African countries. (6)

New York Times columnist Kristof also writes that a number of young social entrepreneurs attended the most recent session of the World Economic Forum, including Ariel Zylbersztejn the 27-year-old Mexican who founded Cinepop. Cinepop is an organization that projects movies onto large inflatable screens free of charge for the Mexican public. The project is funded by advertisement sales to companies who wish to advertise to the thousands of film-goers attending Cinepop screenings. At the screenings, Zylbersztejn puts families in contact with micro-loan agencies. (1)

As social entrepreneurs are increasingly sought after by businesses, universities are beginning to offer social entrepreneurship courses (1). And LSU's award-winning SIFE chapter continues to be a source of social entrepreneurship education on campus.

Social entrepreneurship owes it's popularity to shifting priorities in the corporate sector, a culture that increasingly encourages young entrepreneurship, and perhaps even a crisis in conscience among capitalists. But ultimately, idealistic social entrepreneurs are in high demand from both politicians and business firms because of their capacity to deliver. It is after all, resourceful individuals like Sturt and Klaber who directly address the nitty-gritty realities of poverty on the ground.

References 1. Kristof, Nicholas. The Age of Ambition. New York Times, January 27, 2008. 2. Cowen, Tyler. The Loose Reins on U.S. Teenagers Can Produce Trouble or Entrepreneurs. New York Times, June 14, 2007. 3. Vaughn, Alexa. Early to Rise. Washington Post. March 24, 2008. 4. Mohammad Yunus. Nobel Lecture in Oslo, December 10. 6. Orphansagainstaids.org

Do you know of young Adventist social entrepreneurs in your area? Please share.

What are your views on today's social entrepreneurship? Does it deserve the hype?

What are your views on Grameen-style micro-credit lending programs? Does micro-credit have it's limitations?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/585