These are individuals “with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems”, “who dream up and take responsibility for an innovative and untested idea for positive social change, and usher that idea from dream to reality, and who combine “the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination”.
Though the definition may vary, the appeal of the “social entrepreneur” among the Millennial Generation (those born between 1983 and 2001) is undeniable, as highlighted in a recent post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network by Lara Galinsky.
As senior vice president of Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that provides seed funding and technical assistance to emerging social entrepreneurs, Galinsky has seen her fair share of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Millennials eager to start organizations that will solve every problem from poverty to pollution.
Yet, Galinsky – despite or perhaps because of – her position believes that not all Millennials should become social entrepreneurs. Invoking the Igbo proverb of “It takes a village to raise a child,” Galinsky argues that it takes an “entire ecosystem” to solve the world’s biggest problems.
In order to succeed, social entrepreneurs need the support of fundraisers, designers, and communications and development specialists to transform their bold ideas into reality. According to Galinsky, to harness the Millennials’ passion for social change:
“We must move away from the antiquated concept of vocation, which emphasizes what’s in it for the individual: whether it will sustain their interest or bring them fame or fortune… They needn’t be founders of new organizations to have an impact on the world. But they should be founders of their careers.”
It’s a logical argument and a lovely sentiment, but it ignores the obvious question of why? Why is this particular generation – the Millennials – so captivated and fixated on social entrepreneurship? The problems they want to solve have been around for decades, even centuries. Why now? Why this generation?
Call me pessimistic, but I don’t think this surge in social entrepreneurial spirit is due to the Millennial generation being more altruistic or socially conscious than their predecessors. In fact, I doubt that altruism plays a major role in the decision of most Millennials to pursue this career path.
As the Chronicle of Education reports, a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology compared the traits of Millennials, Generation X’ers, and Baby Boomers at the same age from 1966 to 2009 and found that Millennials place much greater value on money, image and fame than previous generations.
Basically, Millennials are more “Generation Me” than “Generation We”. This is a generation that has been raised to believe that they are special; that they can do and be anything they want. This is the generation that gave birth to the term “helicopter parent,” a generation that has been prepped and primed from an early age to get the best grades, participate in the most extracurricular activities, attend the best schools, etc.
So when it comes to the Millennial obsession with social entrepreneurship, I can’t help but think that, to them, it represents just another notch on their belt of accomplishments, another step on the ladder to individual achievement and recognition.
Millennials have spent their entire lives in the spotlight, at the center of their parents’ and their own individual universes. For many, I think social entrepreneurship provides an opportunity to remain in the spotlight, rather than assume a supporting role.
In her post, Galinsky admits that Echoing Green, and other organizations like it, “shines a bright light on social entrepreneurs, often making them stars.” Moving forward, though, she notes that Echoing Green will be “cutting the spotlight and raising the house lights” to focus more on the ecosystem needed for social enterprises to succeed.
But when the lights come up in the house, will there be any Millennials willing to work backstage?
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