by Brittany Lane and Nükhet Kardam
– USA –
Entrepreneurship, or the process of starting a business or organization, has long been essential for healthy and growing economies. For the past several years, however, the burgeoning field of social entrepreneurship is generating an undeniable buzz. Social entrepreneurs seek solutions specifically for social and environmental problems using market-based approaches.
Increasingly, women are plugging into mission-driven business activities as leaders and innovators. This is not surprising, as plenty of research shows that women care about community and typically focus on family, women, and youth-related issues. In fact, women generally are motivated to act by “pull factors, including their family experiences and injustices they have witnessed.”
While the research gives us a better understanding women’s motivations for social entrepreneurship, the question remains: How do successful women social entrepreneurs communicate? Do their particular approaches to communication contribute to effective social change, to achieving greater justice and equity in society?
To explore this idea, we conducted in depth interviews with four successful women social entrepreneurs with strong connections to the Center for Social Impact Learning (CSIL) at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS). Sabiha Malik, Keely Stevenson, and Sakena Yacoobi are on the Advisory Council for the center, and Maame Afon is a former MIIS student who presented and performed at the recent CSIL Launch. While by no means a representative sample, the interviews reveal some interesting patterns and common themes.
All four women feel strongly connected to others. Communicating for social change is a way of life. It is a simultaneous expression of the fulfillment of a calling to serve that comes from within, and its external manifestation.
The interviewees all point to their parents as role models who demonstrated how to communicate and interact with others by treating their children with love and respect. From the beginning, a supportive family that values education plays an important part in their childhoods. At an early age they all experienced an environment encouraging creativity and entrepreneurship. They tell stories about organizing community parades during holidays and rallying other children around a particular cause.
While many young people today feel the necessity to pursue higher education, pick a path, and work toward a specialization, these women arrived at their passions indirectly by dabbling in a range of professions. Stevenson worked as an optical technician in a department store, as a birthday host for children at Discovery Zone, and in hospice care before getting into campaign politics, which later led her to impact investing. Malik worked as an architect and a jewelry designer before stumbling upon the illegal diamond trade, which launched her into a series of mission-driven work. The two other women worked a variety of work-study jobs at their respective universities, from cleaning the cafeteria to managing the library. Yacoobi was a public health consultant in the United States before founding the renowned Afghan Institute of Learning. Afon worked in the shoe department at Ross, pursued a variety of jobs at NGOs working on gender and development in Africa, before switching gears to advocate for women’s rights through her music. The women engaged with people from all walks of life and feel comfortable with diversity. They learned how to listen and see different viewpoints, developing empathy through immersion.
Their windy paths became sources of inspiration and exposed them to different areas of work. For example, Stevenson engaged in hospice care years ago and is now devoted to developing a mobile technology that makes it easier for people to care for each other in times of crisis, chronic illness, or aging. She says that she “saw such beauty and life in these individuals” and had to “capture some of that and bring it along with [her] in all [she does] every day.” Growing up in Ghana, Afon constantly faced household responsibilities while her boy cousins played freely. She says that while she learned many valuable lessons, it was “a space to start triggering [her] consciousness about social justice, gender roles [and] stereotypes.” This experience led her to advocacy work for gender equality as well as mentorship for other young African women hoping to achieve their visions.
On a spiritual level, all four women mention the importance of self-reflection and self-awareness. Two mention religious faith as their main drive. Stevenson tells us: “At the end of the day, it’s about love, about being connected in a really powerful way as human beings and understanding a sense of oneness about each other.” This internal confidence and sense of unity with other human beings led them to leadership centered on service. Afon believes that “the power to lead will only come from the commitment to serve.” This aligns with the notion of servant-leadership, which is the idea that “greatness in leadership should arise out of the desire to serve” by participating “in the system in search of social justice.”
Leadership stems from a place of genuine care instead of dominance, and it constantly grows and adapts with the purpose of helping others. Yacoobi says, “Above all, you must have empathy and love. If you have compassion and love for what you’re doing, then you’re successful. Your heart will speak and your whole soul will speak. People will know that you’re sincere. Show that love and compassion. There is no failing in that.”
The women we interviewed have a flexible understanding of their own identity. All four social entrepreneurs have lived and traveled around the world extensively, and none mention a strong sense of nationality. Malik says, “I think being a human being is the greatest thing that could ever be. I don’t have any concept of nationality. I’ve never had that. I’m taken aback when people say, where were you born? Yes, it’s very interesting, but when I meet people, it’s not the first thing that occurs to me. Once I get to know somebody, then it becomes interesting.”
Our interviewees have cultivated the ability to adapt to different environments and refrain from strong and defensive attachment to their own identities. Referring to her work in international development, Afon says, “When I’m in the boardroom, I’m a board member. When I’m in a village with the people I work with, when I go to these spaces, you would never know it was me. You just have to adjust. If you know their story, their story will allow you to communicate better with them.”
All four social entrepreneurs also mention a strong connection to being a woman. Stevenson says, “I would say being a woman has been a pretty strong part, being a feminist very early on, and understanding what that means. I really value equality and equal access to power and opportunity for everyone. It shaped a lot of my actions and activities and ability to fit in a variety of circles – that sense of justice and connectedness to others.” Similarly, Yacoobi says, “My position in this world is as a woman who seeks justice, equality, and freedom, and [as] a woman who wants to really transform others so they can reach the same level of life. I really believe in it.”
It seems clear that being a woman shapes the decision to engage in this field of work. Self-awareness and self-understanding seems to allow them to listen with greater authenticity and with less preconceived notions. While they are able to detach from their own identities to some degree, they are also able to maintain an internal sense of confidence and trust.
Although only a snapshot, these conversations show women who at a young age exhibited entrepreneurial characteristics and were fortunate to grow up in relatively loving and enabling environments. They learned about flexibility and adaptation. They also learned not to be strongly attached to their own identities. In many ways, this allowed for motivation to come quite naturally. As Malik says, “I’ve always had a tremendous sense of purpose and compelling need to find meaning, find meaning in everything from drinking a cup of tea to boiling an egg. When I become aware of what I’m doing, then anything becomes a delight and a joy.”
Brittany Lane is a graduate with distinction candidate for a M.A. in International Policy and Development at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She earned her B.A. in International Relations and Economics from the College of William and Mary, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa. She is passionate about women’s rights, social entrepreneurship, gender equity through sport, and youth development. She is a Graduate Assistant for The WIP and the Center for Social Impact Learning.
Nükhet Kardam originally from Turkey, is Professor of Development Practice and Policy at the Mddlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. She has two books titled “Turkey’s Engagement with Women’s Human Rights” (Asghate Publishers, 2005), and Bringing Women In: Women’s Issues in International Development Programs (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1993) and has worked on women’s rights and gender and development for several decades both at the global and local levels, as instructor and consultant. Her most recent work in the area of women’s social entrepreneurship is co-authored with Fredric Kropp, titled: “Women as Social Entrepreneurs: A Case Study” in Women in the Global Economy: Leading Social Change edited by Trish Tierney (20IIE Global Education Report, 2013). She is currently working on a digitized scholarship project, tentatively titled: East, West and Beyond: A Personal Exploration into Identities. Please visit her faculty page for further information.