Inside the Mind of a Social-Impact Entrepreneur
“I swear, if you were my own child — I would be so pissed off at you right now”, told me the mother of my best friend, a few years ago.
In her defense, those words were aimed at me while she was wearing the hat of my accountant, a role she’s been doing voluntarily during the early years of the first business venture I founded, “just until you financially stand up on your feet”, her words. The reason for the rebuke, was because I was making a ridiculously low income in those first years.
In my defense, being an entrepreneur is not an easy task.
Especially with no formal education in business management, besides the knowledge that I kept gathering from others and by self-education through trial and error.
Especially with my tendency “not to nudge people because it might be rude”, while someone actually told me once: “Why didn’t you keep calling and reminding me to reply? Don’t you know that’s how it works?”
Especially as a social-impact entrepreneur, whose top priority is “making a positive dent in the world”, therefore is more receptive to work for free, or almost free.
The labyrinth of successful ideas
Here’s how a mind of a regular entrepreneur works, and bear in mind that although it’s based on countless conversations with fellow entrepreneurs, this is still a subjective interpretation:
You have an “Eureka” moment — in the shower, before you fall asleep, during a meditation retreat or while you were having one extra glass of wine and inspiration called (mine, BTW, came while I was strolling with my son by the stables that he liked so much as a baby).
You try to figure out if your idea meets a need (“YES!” you convince yourself. “I talked to hundreds of people who complained about X, and I have the perfect solution!”)
You try to figure out who is your target audience (“EVERYONE could use it!” You tell others. “Wrong”, finally an honest friend corrects you. “Not everyone needs it, wants it or could afford it. Focus, please”).
You develop, you prototype, you get feedback, you invest or find investors, you start marketing, and if you’re lucky — you’ll start selling your product or service at scale.
Some days you hate what you’re doing (“Why do I need to be my own secretary, finance person, and an entire marketing department?”), some days you fall into despair (“No one will ever buy it/others do it better than me/who am I to… — what was I thinking?”), other days you fall in love with your endeavor. Over and over again.
I know, I know. I left a lot on the editing floor while describing the fairytale of entrepreneurship, but you get the gist of it. Complicated, thrilling, tiring — all together, often times simultaneously.
The labyrinth of the passion to change the world
Now, social entrepreneurship — that’s even more complicated. More thrilling maybe, more tiring probably, and definitely way messier, wrapped up with unseen layers of urgency, social mission, passion, activism, and even guilt.
Yes, you’ve heard right. Guilt.
Where did guilt come from?
Let’s start from the other hidden and bubbling feelings that underpin the journey of a social-impact founder.
When you’re passionate about a social or environmental cause and decided to address it professionally, an interesting process happens. Your passion gradually grows into your major field of interest — it’s almost the only topic you can talk about. If you’ve ever hung out with friends at a social setting, and couldn’t stop telling them about your new exciting project, you know what I’m talking about.
As nice as it is to share with the world the love of what you do, there are also risks in concentrating on just a single topic for conversations. First, your friends will get tired of it. Second, at some point, your excitement will be replaced with concerns about your project. Are you also prepared to share your challenges and setbacks with those friends? Because if you don’t, you’ll become numb, quiet or just dishonest the next time they’ll ask you “how’s it going”. The fire of passion could charge you with powerful energies, but could also burn you, if you don’t deal well with setbacks.
Another two-way emotion that connects directly to social-impact entrepreneurship, is urgency.
You feel that the right time is now. Not even now — yesterday!
They keep telling you that. It’s on the media, the social media, conveyed in scary stories, weaved in the “founders’ competition” that’s under the surface.
“It’s the last minute to fight climate change”; “There’s no better time than today”; “Let’s pull the handbrake on fossil fuels while we still can”; “40 under 40”; 30 under 30"; 20 under 20" — Hey, wait for me! I’m coming to rescue! Am I too late?!
Here’s to the problem with those headlines prompting urgency: real as they might be, and with all the intention to drive action, what happens too often is one of two things. Either people are motivated to take action NOW, but then find out that processes take time and they’ll collect the fruits only years from now (read: frustration), or they feel so helpless due to that urgency (“who am I to save the planet?”) — that they don’t even take action from the first place.
How sad, isn’t it?
Urgency for social-impact entrepreneurs is a good motivator — under the condition that those entrepreneurs know how to manage the feeling in a balanced way, and not falling into the trap of “I can never make it on time”. Self-talk about proportions or a good mentor could do the trick, in case you occasionally feel overwhelmed with urgency.
The cost of guilt
From passion that could accidentally burn you, through urgency that could frustrate you by mistake, the road to guilt is glowing in the dark.
“I went into a social gathering, and all I could think of is: There are only plastic bottles here! How am I going to drink the entire evening? I can’t use plastic — in my work I standout against using plastic! How hypocrite of me it would be to drink out from plastic…” — this is a true story, told me by a colleague from Australia, who makes his living as a consultant and entrepreneur in the field of environmental sustainability.
Guilt is a tricky emotion.
Guilt shows up in unplanned moments, usually when we aren’t meditating or calm enough to think brightly through it.
Guilt uncovers a lot of our negative self-talk, especially the parts that we’re not willing to openly admit.
Guilt is a stumbling block in the social-impact entrepreneur journey because on one hand, these sorts of entrepreneurs are highly attached to their social mission — it actually symbolizes their professional integrity; yet these are also humans. And humans, last time I checked, aren’t perfect. People make mistakes, or they are in circumstances that won’t allow them to opt for the ideal actions.
If a social entrepreneur is not capable of handling the imperfection of the reality we’re living in, then guilt arises. Working with guilt as your companion is not only displeasing, it’s also unhealthy and ineffective for the long run.
I’m worth it. Am I?…
Finally, it goes back to value. Both the way social entrepreneurs value their own work, and the tag and monetary value that society puts on the mission of social founders. One of the biggest problems for social entrepreneurs is that their work, which intends to benefit society in the first place, is sometimes being confused with charity, volunteering, and pro-bono work.
The common denominator is clear: the will to help and aid either people in need or the planet. But that doesn’t mean that social entrepreneurship and charity are identical, even if there’s similarity of social mission in their core.
Charity, volunteering or pro-bono work is usually being given by those who have the resources, of either time or money. They most likely need to finance themselves, yet their source of income is coming from a different stream.
Social-impact entrepreneurs use their own work or profession to help parts of the world, which means that this is their primary resource of income, which they need to make an honorable living.
When social entrepreneurs don’t get paid to do their work — just because it’s associated with the noble cause of creating a social impact — that’s an irony. Receiving appreciation or encouragement instead of compensation for their services is the last thing that encourages social entrepreneurs.
It’s like someone comes tapping on your shoulder and says: “Great job, and so highly needed! I bet you’re satisfied and proud of yourself, and you should! Now go out there, and keep working your ass off, so we could all keep sleeping peacefully and cheer you up from the sidelines. In case we’re not too busy, of course”.
Indeed, the perfect irony.
The mind of a social entrepreneur is a complicated, messy space. Sometimes life is messy, and that’s OK. However, if you are that entrepreneur person who’s looking to create a better world, or if you are on the other side and consuming their services — try understanding and reducing that mess. It’s hard enough as it is.
For a deeper glance at social entrepreneurs’ journeys and some practical advice on preventing burnout — you’re welcome to visit www.EnkindleGlobal.com and join our growing community.