A couple of weeks ago I was invited to judge a graduate level social enterprise competition at Seattle Pacific University here in the Pacific Northwest. The contest was a group based contest in which students pitched a social enterprise to an audience of business people with the idea of getting funding to launch. Each group begins with a quick 7 minuted pitch on their idea, their team, their impact, and their needed funding. They are then evaluated through individual conversation with the judges. It was a phenomenal experience and it was wonderful to be invited, though I did feel out of place at times being a judge of such a contest.
Most of the people in the room were true blue business folks. Some had worked for Disney and Microsoft. The woman next to me had left a lucrative tech career to found her own social enterprise creating special L.E.D. lights for children wanting to read during the night hours so that literacy rates would go up. When it came time to introduce myself, part of me wanted to chuckle. I was the only person in the room who was in full time ordained ministry as far as I could tell. My social enterprise felt remarkably humble and my business experience felt absent.
I own a small landscaping company that employs about 6 people in my local community. It is paired with another mentoring program that imparts life skills and faith principles to a total of 12 teens from our area. We are unique in that we are building this model not apart from a church, but largely connected to one even though we are independent in terms of our legal structures. At times I only understood about 60% of the terminology being thrown around the room as I have no formal business training. My business is run off of my awareness of human nature, my experience of my father's businesses as a child, and a passion to make an impact.
But, this is my third social enterprise gathering that I have gone to and about the 5th venue that I have been to where I have discussed the intersection of faith and business. I am learning some important things I think about this world.
1. Passion- When we went around and asked each group about their particular idea or product, one of the first questions that I asked them was, "Tell me why you are passionate about this?" Launching any venture (social enterprise or not) is going to require some suffering and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears. What struck me was how few of them had prepared for that question. I regard passion for the idea at stake as critical. Suffering is a central part of the Christian story and several of the students gave me remarkably corporate answers. One said, "Well I have worked in several non-profits and now I would like to start my own." There were two students in particular who had immediate connection to their idea and it was clear that they had some real drive to actually tackle the problem. Now I know that these were hypothetical projects, but I think that any church or school that is teaching entrepreneurship needs to be teaching its students some kind of spiritual formation process for discerning what it is they are willing to struggle for before they go launching something. Otherwise social enterprise will become just another career path. If the Christian story gives something to enterprise it's the notion of finding something so beloved that it is worth dying for. Christian Social Enterprise needs to connect to that story and harness that sort of passion for the good.
2. Graduate Students and Every Day Folks are Key- In several of the programs I have attneded I have been exposed to theology students, business undergrads, and everyday folks trying to launch. My experience has been that graduate students with life under their belts are best. Theology folks have tended to be very idealistic about their ideas and about human nature in the marketplace. The undergrads don't feel the sufficient fear of having to move out into the real world just yet. It's the everyday folks and the grad students seem to be most ready to launch. The everyday folks have had the time and lived experience to discern what their passions are. The grad students are at the last possible stage of education (more or less) and know they have to launch. Many of them also have had some career exposure prior to their degree. I was impressed at Seattle Pacific that their ideas seemed big, but doable. I think if we want to engage theological reflection with the business world, schools that have theology departments and graduate business departments will be key. Of course, they will need to work together and that may be quite a challenge.
3. Let's Not Forget the Ordinary- One of the things that has floored me at these kinds of competitions is that people always have these massive ideas about what to launch. Everything must massively scale! Everything must have massive impact! Everything must disrupt whole industries! I have heard ideas for upcycling coffee grounds, recycling used diapers by the thousands of tons, solar projects for churches, etc. etc. etc. One of the things that I think gets missed in all of this desire to do good and "innovate" is just injecting the good into existing ordinary marketplaces. There is a very thin line between ME wanting to impact on a big scale and a kind narcissism and that is worth keeping in mind. We cannot underestimate our culture's love of humanistic self actualization. The simplicity of the landscaping company that we run is that we have broken into an existing ordinary marketplace by offering customers an augmented service. All we do is excellent landscaping and make a social impact while we do it. I often hear frustration from the folks that host these events that not many of the folks that attend them actually launch! I think perhaps if we coached people on just disrupting ordinary local industries they might do so. Find something you are good at and offer it to the public with greater social value and people will prefer to buy your services over your competitor as long as the service is excellent and you can show them the impact in some way.
4. Be Patient and Consider the Good- One of my concerns for social enterprise programs is that they don't take the time to teach about the importance of time and immersion. Too many of these programs are concerned with launching or creating a great idea! The problem with that is that many people who innovate, tend to innovate in an area that they have immersed themselves in for some time. Either in a particular community or in a particular field of interest. Their innovation tends to be around the edges of some place that they have been embedded. To me, to focus on embedding is to live out the doctrine of the Incarnation. When our primary goal is ideating and producing, it will tend to produce ideas that we are not fully connected to and that probably will not be as effective at serving the common good. We need to work on ideas that we know and care about in places that we know and care about. We need to fully consider the good of the idea we are working on rather than just whether it is a "good idea". I think that we can improve on this at most of our Christian social incubators and accelerators.