Published in Forbes.com
Today, according to the according to The Independent, “Women are almost twice as likely to reach the top ranks in social enterprises as they are in mainstream businesses,” and “more than 90 percent of companies that focus on tackling social problems have at least one woman on their leadership team.” To put it even more bluntly, as former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said in her address at the 2012 Social Enterprise World Forum in Rio de Janeiro, it seems that “women are natural social entrepreneurs.”
The question is, why are we finding so many women in this field – and are they really capable of leading the charge?
An alignment between women in leadership and women as consumers has been underway for some time. We’re no longer a niche market, and that change is reflected in evolving occupational roles as well — think Sheryl Sandberg. Meanwhile, our evolution as players in social entrepreneurship can be traced to the not-so-distant past. Women always worked in social occupations (teachers, nurses, mothers), but the more ambitious women of the Mad Men-era emerged as leaders in community societies and volunteer organizations.
So while philanthropy has always been the domain of wealthy men, the new field of social entrepreneurship is ideally suited to women, who have always had to meet complex demands that pit community against individualism. In short, we understand the necessity of seeing the economy and the world as an interconnected and interdependent system.
But there’s a very real danger in characterizing social entrepreneurship as a kind of lesser women’s work — not quite a business and not quite philanthropy, either. Writing for The Guardian, Servane Mouazan, founder of Ogunte, explains that seeing social enterprise as a “second-class business category just because we tend to believe that it’s OK to charge less or because we do this ‘for the community’” could easily derail our progress in the field.
Luckily, there are plenty of role models doing just the opposite, like Joelle Adler, President and CEO of Diesel Canada Inc. and Founder of the ONEXONE Charitable Foundation. Like many powerful women with corporate and charitable backgrounds, she decided to forge into the new world of social enterprise. Recently, she and fellow visionary Rob Broggi joined several other partners to found the social enterprise venture Industrial Revolution II (IRII). (Full disclosure: I came to meet her through my own company, Uncommon Union, which provides ad technology and audience building services for IRII.)
Adler’s vision is to introduce high-end manufacturing in Haiti. Her approach is practical and business-minded. “We are looking at a business that makes sense, not philanthropy,” she said in an interview. After her husband, Lou Adler, died of cancer at 55, Joelle Adler was awakened to the importance of community and, in her words, “promoting the value of one human life.”
Importantly, this sentiment is more than naive truism. A professional with over 30 years experience in the fashion industry, Adler casts a long shadow. When she envisions the coming revolution of how we conduct business through social enterprise, people listen.
Executives like Adler are clearing the path for a new generation of social entrepreneurs who have chosen to forgo traditional corporate paths. Women are now starting social enterprises in ever-increasing numbers. My own venture, Maiden Nation, with Willa Shalit and Juliana Um, is an ethical fashion brand and marketplace designed to sell products made by women from around the world. The platform is completely flat, which means that products from unknown designers in Haiti sell next to celebrity-designed products made by Lauren Bush, Rachel Roy and Yoko Ono, among others. But we didn’t start Maiden Nation as a philanthropic venture. It’s a business, just like any other business. We can only benefit the community we serve if we profit because only profitable businesses can have a sustainable, far-reaching impact on communities and economies.
Rather than tell women we need to be more like men to succeed in this new realm, we should encourage women to look to the skills they do have to succeed in social enterprise. It is more important than ever that we not see compassion, long-term thinking, and social orientation as weaknesses. In the emerging realm of the social enterprise, these skills are what will help our ventures succeed, grow and change the world as we know it. That’s a bet on our future that I would like to take.
Yes, it is ambitious, but the well-being of our communities (and the lives of men and women as workers, investors, consumers and citizens) are at stake. Those who understand that we are all in this together will benefit themselves while benefiting others.
– Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown, founder, Uncommon Union.