Cultural entrepreneurs – along with all entrepreneurs – drive social change. This is not news to most of us. However, most descriptions of how entrepreneurs create social change stop short of saying more than, “They create new jobs and innovative products.”
Entrepreneurs do create jobs and innovative products. But they do more than this. Entrepreneurs shift the flow of resources, determine the direction of knowledge development, and reorganize social networks.
How do I know this? Because last year I completed my doctoral dissertation, based on 36 interviews with social and cultural entrepreneurs, from across the nation. Over the next several weeks I will be posting excerpts from my dissertation, I hope these excerpts will inspire a greater curiosity about the role of entrepreneurs as social change agents.
Several months ago, while waiting at a red traffic light, I sat behind a beat-up old Subaru station wagon that, typical to cars driven by aging hippies in Santa Fe, hosted myriad political bumper stickers. Among the many that reviled our former President (“Defoliate the Bushes”, “Bush is a Liar”), was one that espoused a more hopeful worldview:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” ~ Margaret Mead.
Ms. Mead, widely considered a leading cultural anthropologist of the 20th century, and highly regarded for her work in encouraging humankind to choose among its possible futures, believed that “cultural patterns of racism, warfare, and environmental exploitation were learned”. Moreover, she believes that members of societies can work together to create new social structures, new social paradigms, in effect, to create social change.
As I sat behind that wagon I pondered the fact that from small groups of people meaningful social change has emerged. Often relatively under-resourced and without apparent political power or social consequence, these groups pursue making their vision a reality and somehow make social change happen in our complex society. “Social change” is popularly defined and understood to be the shifts in social structures, relations, and institutions, which result from social movements or radical events. The academic literature defines social change similarly and Coleman writes of social change occurring as “social reality changes, through the invention of new forms of organization and the development of new processes.” Notably, the altered social structure and relations that have resulted from innovative ideas ranging from America’s foundling democracy to women’s rights to the conservation movement have consistently been instigated by small groups of committed people.
Of course, these small groups are not isolated and entirely without resources; they operate in a web of relationships. They are networked. And they are founded and led by intrepid entrepreneurs, individuals who pursue these opportunities to create change despite a lack of resources. Instead of pursuing financial gain, these social entrepreneurs pursue social change. These social entrepreneurs, while aiming for different outcomes than for-profit entrepreneurs, can be defined similarly to leaders of foundling for-profit ventures who similarly control few resources and strive to achieve outcomes despite this resource paucity (Byers, 2010; Shaw & Carter, 2007).
I wondered if they achieve their outcomes through communicating with established organizations and individuals who share their values and goals. I wondered if instigators of start-up social change organizations intentionally use their social networks as complements to the resources they control. Do they value networks, do they intentionally exchange and aggregate resources through networking? Do they build their credibility and visibility, pursue financial resources, and discover new knowledge or opportunities in their field through social networking activities? Do they plan for, aim for, and pursue outcomes through networking activities? I scribbled down a question that had begun to form in my mind: “How do social change entrepreneurs perceive and utilize their social networks to achieve goals?”
The car behind me honked. The light had turned green.
(Come back next week for the next installment…)