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Faculty Viewpoints

The Social Entrepreneur’s Tool Kit for Making a Difference 

All of us see things we’d change about the world. In her book Social Entrepreneurship: Building Impact Step by Step, recently published in a new edition, Yale SOM’s Teresa Chahine offers a set of tools for anyone seeking to make a positive impact.

Women cooking in the documentary Soufra.

A still from the documentary Soufra, which follows a group of women building a food truck business in the Burj El Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon.

Vivien Killilia/Square Zero Films/Soufra
  • Teresa Chahine
    Sheila and Ron ’92 Marcelo Senior Lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship

Q: What do you most want to tell people about the concept of social entrepreneurship and the newly released second edition of your book Social Entrepreneurship: Building Impact Step by Step?

The social entrepreneurship skill set and mindset can help anyone identify issues that matter to them and figure out how they can contribute to social change.

All of us see ways that the world could be different. Having an impact, being a social entrepreneur, doesn’t mean everyone starting their own organization. I don’t think that everyone needs to be or should be that kind of entrepreneur.

Book cover

Social impact is not about having a light bulb moment—“Oh my God, I have an idea that’s so different that no one has ever thought of it before.” None of us will be the first human to think about any given problem or even any specific solution. Social entrepreneurship is an approach that understands that if you talk to people affected by a problem and people already working on the issue, then you can find ways to contribute to making change happen.

Q: What keeps us from acting?

So many people have a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. They feel that they’re on a path someone else has put them on. They’d like to be able to do something impactful but feel a lack of agency. They don’t give themselves permission to see problems because they don’t feel that they can do anything about it.

One of the case studies I use in the book describes healthcare providers not delving into patients’ living conditions even though those conditions are causing the health problems. It led a doctor to say, “I know she’s living in a mold- infested apartment, and I don’t ask about those issues, because there’s nothing I can do.” I’ve observed similar reluctance to look directly at problems in many different contexts.

I saw it working with refugees in Lebanon—people who are completely disenfranchised. But I’ve also seen it working with Yale SOM students—people who you’d think are on the other end of the power and privilege spectrum. I understood why the refugee women didn’t realize their sense of agency at first. But when I saw that even Yale MBAs didn’t realize their sense of agency, I was so shocked.

I don’t fully know why it’s so common, but I believe it’s significant because it’s a sense of agency that will get us out of the pervasive paralysis in today’s world. All of us need enough confidence and agency to see ourselves as both part of the problem and capable of contributing to positive change.

Q: Would you explain your work with Soufra, a social enterprise run by Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, which is featured as a case study in the book?

I helped launch Alfanar Venture Philanthropy in Lebanon to support marginalized communities by working with the grassroots organizations that serve them. Mariam Al-Shaar was one of the first social entrepreneurs I met during the scoping process. She was a generational refugee, born and raised in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. I immediately saw that she was a social entrepreneur in the way she approached her work and her community and the problems that she wanted to solve. She questioned existing frameworks and saw different possibilities. She had big dreams and the dedication to implement them.

In talking with her, I learned Mariam wanted to create what she called a production unit where refugee women could actually produce something, put it on the market, and generate income for themselves. At the time Mariam was running one of nine Women’s Program Association centers in the 12 refugee camps. They did awareness and skill building activities for women, but Mariam was frustrated because, at the end of the program, the women would go home and nothing would’ve changed.

Exploring the production unit idea, she surveyed the women about what work they might want to do. Cooking came up often. It’s something the women already knew. It’s socially and culturally acceptable in their society and their community. And it actually had a shot of succeeding in a geopolitical and economic situation where any business has a hard time succeeding.

Alfanar provided seed funding and technical support to help them start a catering company that they called Soufra which is the Arabic word for a table filled with many good things to eat. After a year, they decided to try a food truck model. In 2015, we did a Kickstarter campaign to fund the food truck.

Those women started becoming decision makers in their families and in their community. Those kinds of social changes, I think, are the ones that change the world, not we’ve reached x lives.

That changed everything. We went from having 100 donors supporting all of Alfanar’s projects to having 800 people supporting just Soufra. They were also small contributions which changed the practice of venture philanthropy from something high-net-worth individuals participate in to a democratized approach.

The campaign created awareness about Soufra, Mariam, and the women that work with her. A social justice filmmaker did a documentary that was reviewed in the New York Times. In the documentary a woman with a gleam in her eye says, “Women can do anything.” She was the cleaning person on the team. She cleaned the floors. She cleaned the kitchen. And what she came to believe through working with Soufra was, “Especially in these times, women can do anything.”

For all of the women involved, Soufra became a reason to get up, get dressed, and show up somewhere. It became a way to earn money. That’s very important. Yet, I felt the biggest difference was the way the women looked at themselves. Their sense of agency. That was so powerful.

Q: The Soufra case study is in the chapter on measuring impact. Why?

Outcome metrics is my topic of passion. It’s also something that’s broken in the social sector.

Most funders tend to measure the number of lives impacted. People focus so much on those numbers that they even changed their activities to have bigger numbers. I once saw a donor tell a social entrepreneur to implement training workshops for youth because that would let the entrepreneur say they’d reached thousands of people. But training youth is an input. It’s not an outcome; it’s not a social change.

With Soufra less than 30 women work in the organization. Even if you add the indirect impacts on their families, it’s not a huge number. So I felt really unsatisfied with the way that we measure impact. It’s not just how many people you’re reaching, it’s also who you’re reaching. When you’re reaching the hardest-to-reach people, of course you’re going to have smaller numbers.

And it’s not just who you are reaching, but the impact of the offering on the participants and the wider community. Refugees hadn’t been able to work in Lebanon; the women of Soufra carved new paths to navigate the legal system. They created new opportunities that others could pursue. They changed the way people inside and outside their community perceive women, perceive refugees. Those are all real impacts, real reasons why Soufra is important.

Those women started becoming decision makers in their families and in their community. Those kinds of social changes, I think, are the ones that change the world, not we’ve reached x lives. Blindly chasing numbers is something that needs to change in the social sector, especially among funders. It’s hard to do. But creating different ways of illustrating why a certain investment in a social enterprise is important can help change our understanding of impact.

I should add that Soufra wasn’t actually Mariam’s dream. Her dream was to open a daycare in the refugee camp. We mentioned that idea in the Kickstarter video and a nonprofit that focuses on funding construction donated the capital costs for a building. From there it was possible to sustain the daycare’s operations through parents paying the teachers. In creating the catering company and then the food truck and then the daycare, Mariam and the women working with her saw they can have dreams and bring them into being. That has to be part of how we measure impact.

I’m working on a research study in collaboration with Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos and a social enterprise in New Haven called Havenly to try to measure agency. It’s hard to quantify some of the most exciting impacts. But it’s important.

Q: You mentioned that social entrepreneurship doesn’t require starting an organization. Would you described some of the ways to approach social entrepreneurship?

There are so many ways of contributing to social change, but the book focuses on these three: entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship, and extrapreneurship. Entrepreneurship is starting something new, intrapreneurship is innovating within an existing organization, and extrapreneurship is finding innovative ways to collaborate and create change across the boundaries of multiple institutions.

Q: Another of the case studies looks at an effort that takes all three forms over time—intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship, and eventually extrapreneurship.

Yes. I alluded to it earlier. Health Leads started in the 1990s when a student volunteering at a Boston hospital wanted to figure out why the same patients showed up in the emergency room again and again.

By talking with patients, she realized the various conditions they were coming in for were all tied to poverty. By talking with providers, she realized that providers were not asking patients about root causes because they couldn’t do anything about those drivers of health. No one was asking patients, “When was the last time you had a hot meal?” Or “What are your living conditions?” The providers only felt able to treat symptoms, not the root causes that brought the patients back again and again.

The student decided to create Project Health, a low-cost offering within the hospital. She got student volunteers to set up informational kiosks and provide patients with information about social services they could access to tackle those root causes—housing, nutrition, etc.

In time the intrapreneurship effort expanded to include a social needs intake form that patients filled out, training for providers on how to talk about these issues, volunteer advocates overseen by professional social workers, and studies verifying that addressing social needs improved health outcomes. Eventually it grew into a nonprofit organization called Health Leads to deliver the program to many hospitals. The entrepreneurship allowed scale. They practiced extrapreneurship by connecting healthcare and social services providers with each other to improve the ways they all provide information to patients. After 20 years of leading the organization, the founder and a fellow executive of Health Leads left to start another initiative with an extrapreneurship model called The Health Initiative, which is literally changing the conversation about health. At this point, across political, racial, wealth, and religious divides, there’s support for investing in addressing drivers of health.

Q: Extrapreneurship was a new idea to me. Why did you put such emphasis on it?

I open and close with extrapreneurship cases to really underscore that social entrepreneurship is not about an individual entrepreneur and it’s not about any one organization.

We can’t take on our current challenges in education, climate change, health, etc., thinking one organization at a time. We need partnerships. We need social entrepreneurs working together to be more effective, to scale, to create systems change and framework change. We need players in multiple sectors working together to change policy and practices. In other words, we need extrapreneurship.

The United Nations has 17 Sustainable Development Goals to reach by 2030. The 17th and final goal is partnership. That’s a recognition that we need the infrastructure of working across sectors to tackle social problems.

A colleague at Yale, Brad Gentry, says that some people like to be superstars and their approach to entrepreneurship is more like “hero-preneurship,” as another colleague, Daniela Papi-Thornton, puts it. It’s all about them, which is not conducive to social change. Brad pointed out to me that others want to be part of something bigger than themselves; they are happy to be stars within a constellation. That resonated with me so much.

In the book, I present an example of extrapreneurship with Catalyst2030, which is a constellation of actors working toward collective change. If you look at the org chart of Catalyst 2030, it’s like you’re looking at the night sky. You can practically see the Big Dipper. Catalyst2030 doesn’t have a chief executive; it has a chief facilitator. The intention is to consciously and innovatively help people to work together in a different way. It’s not even a registered organization; it’s a distributed entity. It’s basically a network of people at different organizations around the world who are all already involved in social entrepreneurship in some capacity. Instead of continuing to work separately and in parallel, Catalyst 2030 lets them work together to accelerate progress. Extrapreneurship allows them to amplify each other’s work and ensure the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Q: Why did you decide to do this second edition of the book?

Initially, because the publisher asked me to. But then, it became an opportunity to rethink everything. I learned by conducting the interviews that appear throughout the book. Talking with people changed the way I framed the stages of social entrepreneurship, the language I use, and the case studies I selected. It was a lot of hard work, but it changed how I teach and talk about social entrepreneurship.

Q: It sounds like you followed your own model. “Talking to People” is the name of the second chapter.

I have to credit my colleague Zoe Chance for encouraging me to fully articulate and highlight that idea of social entrepreneurs talking with everyone they can about the issue they want to work on. It’s an approach she really believes in too. When people approach her with an idea, she says, “Go out there and talk to 100 people.” Her feedback led me to name the chapter “Talking to People.”

By engaging people, testing, and getting feedback at every stage, ideas evolve. What you end up implementing is always so different from what you thought when you set out. That’s social entrepreneurship.

But talking to people has always been part of the course I teach. Students read academic studies and learn frameworks, but I also require them to talk to people in the real world. Those experiences lead to many of the learnings that they articulate in class. I think the mix of academic rigor and an experiential component compliment, support, and strengthen each other.

Q: It sounds like a path to agency.

Absolutely. Yes. I want my students to recognize their strengths. And also recognize their limitations. We need both learned experience, which is what we have at Yale, and lived experience, which is what we have out in the world. Each student has their own unique lived experience that they need to build on. It’s good to work on issues that you have firsthand experience with, but even then, it’s still crucial to talk to others and incorporate their lived experience into the work. How can you work with them and learn from them?

With my work in Lebanon, I didn’t go in saying, “I’m going to solve problems for these refugee women.” That’s hero-preneurship. My job was to go talk with lived-experienced leaders like Mariam and support them. And Mariam asked the women she was working with what they were interested in doing.

By engaging people, testing, and getting feedback at every stage, ideas evolve. What you end up implementing is always so different from what you thought when you set out. That’s social entrepreneurship.

Department: Faculty Viewpoints