Where is the greatest concentration of new American social entrepreneurs (which I’m defining loosely as “individuals who are starting new projects to make the world a better place")? It is an important question because Americans simply have the greatest access to resources for these projects. And the answer should guide how we in the sector look for new talent and for lessons to share.
So take a one question quiz. Are the most social entrepreneurs found in:
- Networks like Ashoka, which promotes itself as “the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs?”
- The growing number of business school programs like the University of Pacific’s Council of University Social Entrepreneurship?
- Large annual gatherings like Opportunity Collaboration or the Social Enterprise Alliance (which bills itself as the largest membership organization of social entrepreneurs)
- Online forums like the Social Edge?
- The US military
Answer? By far and away, it is the 5. The US military.
In Iraq alone, since 2003 $50 billion has been invested
in projects to rebuild this country. Most of it has been administered by the US military or its offshoots. Back when Iraq was “hotter” in active warfare and in current combat zones in Afghanistan, many of the projects were conducted by combat troops trying to win hearts and minds. Indeed, the new American counter-insurgency doctrine emphasizes the work of troops to stay in areas and actively promote security and tangible socioeconomic improvement. To Iraq and Afghanistan, American troops have brought new access to water, new schools, health care, and education (especially for girls) to millions of individuals.
In terms of sheer scale, the efforts of the American military dwarfs any other form of social entrepreneurship. One of course can disagree with any aspect of our military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan -- just as one can disagree with any other aspect of social entrepreneurship like micro-finance, fair trade, green technology, or any other form of attempted world improvement discussed in this forum.
But one can't deny the reality that if you were to compose a typical picture of a young American social entrepreneur, you shouldn’t think of some Ivy League Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. Think a high school graduate from Alabama wearing a sargeant's rank and responsible for what is essentially a multi-million dollar development effort to get electricity to an Iraqi village. For all the university courses offered these days on international development, that seargant and thousands like him actually represent our country's most seasoned experts, having figured out on the fly complex topics like negotiating with local leaders, power sharing, "culturally appropriate" forms of development, and countless more.
As these troops return from home and eventually leave the military, are we in the social sector going to realize that there is a wealth of experienced talent there for us to welcome into our midst? Military service often shapes soldiers returning from duty into wanting to devote themselves to civic service (the post WWII “Greatest Generation” did just that). And what about all the institutional lessons being learned by the military in these development projects? Will they never get accessed by civilians in our sector?
I fear that we won’t take advantage of these enormous opportunities. A big reason is due to the social segregation that defines how military service is experienced. In America, the burden of military service falls so unequally on certain segments of our population (i.e. the South, non-white, non-college educated) such that other segments are practically insulated from military life.
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the centers of the social entrepreneur movement. I don't know a single family in our elementary school or work environments that has a parent deployed overseas. We don't think of the military personnel as "social entrepreneurs" because well, we just don't think of military personnel, period.
For us social entrepreneurs, soldiers need to become real human faces for us: as colleagues, as fellow citizens, as heroes.