The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur

Jonathan C. Lewis

203 pages, Red Press, 2017

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This book is about powering up your social justice career.

For most of my life, the idea of writing about social entrepreneurship has paled in comparison to doing social entrepreneurship. Then, I discovered writing was one way to think harder about social entrepreneurship and social justice, to catalog my reflections and missteps, to collect my joys and concerns.

In writing this book, I’ve been as honest as my inhibitions allowed me to be. I’ve tried to be a truth-teller, sharing what I’m thinking and questioning. This book is a book of conviction, but I did not write it to lecture you about our global humanity or shared challenges. If your conscience doesn’t move you to action, nothing else can or will. I wrote it so we could make each better change agents. I wrote so you and I, together, can kick injustice in the ass. Twice. Hard.

Let’s talk about the heart-mending, heart-ripping, heart-happy joy of social entrepreneurship, social change, and social justice. Let’s talk about the issues, the challenges, the topics of greatest concern to us. —Jonathan C. Lewis

Antigua, Guatemala, is a picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Center. The charming central zocalo, chic garden restaurants, restored Spanish colonial architecture, trendy boutiques and quaint buildings in bright gold, blushing red and fading turquoise make it easy for tourists to forget that, just ten minutes’ drive outside of town, the predominant reality isn’t quite so picturesque. Life there includes loving families, laughter, home-cooked meals and bucolic scenery—but it also includes poverty, limited opportunity and entrenched patriarchy. As with most places in the world, life in Antigua is complex and convoluted.

One balmy summer, I was lucky enough to find myself in Antigua on a family holiday, staying in a private home complete with personal staff. Three times a day, the housekeeper-cook prepared a scrumptious meal while patiently allowing me to practice my Spanish.

As often happens in these situations, my housekeeper and I struck up a temporary ‘friendship’. Seasoned social entrepreneurs often hear an acquaintance proclaim, “Oh, I was just in such-and-such country, and I loved the people.” Commonly, a story ensues in which the visitor becomes ‘good friends’ with their tour guide, the innkeeper’s family or the safari leader. When I am surrounded by waiters, maids, hotel clerks, translators and other service workers (who are paid to provide for my creature comforts), the truth is that nearly every person I come into contact with is incentivized to make me smile. Happy travelers tip better.

Hearing the rudiments of my housekeeper’s daily routine triggered my sense of largesse and privilege. She was a single mom with a young child who, during the day, was left in the care of an aged grandmother. Walking an hour to work meant my housekeeper’s day started before dawn and finished after dark. Apart from weekends, her only ‘quality time’ with her kid was while the little girl slept. Hearing this story about one of life’s little inequities, I couldn’t help but feel sad.

One day, while ambling about town, as a thank-you gift for my housekeeper, I purchased the sturdiest-looking bicycle I could find in the local bike shop. Instead of the one-hour trudge to and from work, my housekeeper could now breakfast with her daughter, cycle fifteen minutes to work, and arrive back home well before dark. Presenting it, we shared a moment of joy as I felt her gratitude.

Unfortunately, bicycles need servicing, replacement parts and the occasional new tire, none of which my housekeeper could afford. Within a year, the bike, rusting and inoperable, was discarded.

Seeking emotional relief from the glaring, chafing disparity between my family’s holiday time contrasted with my housekeeper’s daily absence from her family, and carried away with my self-styled Western capacity to problem-solve, I did what was obvious—not what was smart. And certainly without respecting my housekeeper’s superior understanding of her own circumstances. All heart, no head.

If I had bothered to ask my housekeeper what she wanted, if I had honored her agency, or if I had been in-residence in her community (instead of just touristing through), perhaps she could have given me a gift: a clear understanding of how to better leverage my natural desire to help. Perhaps I would have learned that she coveted a sturdy pair of shoes. Maybe the sustainable solution was school fees to upgrade her earning power. When I paternalistically paid for a bicycle without paying attention to her agency, who knows what I didn’t learn?

I don’t regret what I did. I do regret the spontaneous foolishness with which I did it. I don’t regret my generosity of spirit. I do regret the way that my generosity was wasted by me.


Whenever and wherever I travel, I take myself with me. When I’m planning a new social venture, I think like myself. When confronted with a new idea, I filter it through my preconceived preferences, proclivities and phobias. What choice do I really have? “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken,” quipped Oscar Wilde.

When I arrive in a faraway township (or in an equally unfamiliar, culturally-different, racially-segregated neighborhood a few blocks away from my house), I’m a captive of observer bias. “We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are,” tartly noted the novelist Anais Nin. Healthcare professionals are likely to perceive a community’s condition in terms of adequate or inadequate healthcare systems; engineers see a need for paved roads and irrigation pipes; internet geeks enthuse about apps and mobile money; economists thrive on economic opportunity plans.

Insofar as social entrepreneurs are committed to community-based, systemic change in this messed-up world, there’s a better way. You and I can tap into local wisdom by asking, “Teach us how, or if, we might be helpful.”

As it happens, I’m an American with an intellectual inheritance of Judeo-Christian moralities and Greco-Roman governance traditions—all nicely framed by a faithful confidence in scientific advancement. My life accomplishments fall under two main classifications: making money in the competitive, capitalist marketplace; and shaping public policy. When my mind is churning out cures for a societal malady, I have a tendency to mimic my life experiences.

I’m a proselytizing missionary, preaching a gospel of progressive ideas about economic, environmental, racial, gender and social justice.

As I drive with righteous determination towards my do-good destination, it’s easy to concentrate on the road ahead, failing to remember the baggage stuffed in the trunk—the baggage I always carry with me. Wherever I go: I bring my culture, my core values, my management methodologies, my access to information and my global network of contacts. And, of course, I bring financial resources. I also bring the troubling backdrop of colonialism—the hegemonic context for American social entrepreneurship.

As an American social entrepreneur, a geographic accident of birth has awarded me a passport stamped with the power to spread my ideology of social change. Lest we forget: Western ascendancy has been largely won by force of arms, underwritten by a lucky abundance of natural resources, a wholesale land grab and genocide, superior industrial ability, slavery and an operational faith in white supremacy. The disturbing truth is that, under the guise of spreading civilization and commercialism to the peoples of the world, Westerners have exploited and terrorized just about everyone we’ve come in contact with. Plus, in modern times, American foreign policy has backed some brutally-effective dictators and despots. In many quarters of the world, that legacy leaves an understandable residue of suspicion.

Even if you and I try to respect local traditions, mindful of seen and unseen power structures, unavoidably we are a living, breathing Hawthorne effect (that is, the field agent’s presence causes subjects to adjust their behavior). For example, if I ask an elder in an isolated, mountainous area to describe the barriers preventing him from sending girls to school, I might be communicating an entirely new idea—namely, that girls have untapped intellectual resources that merit educational opportunity. Inescapably, I’m spreading my contemporary, feminist ideas about gender equality.

“I am a white feminist. I want all people everywhere to be able to live lives free from oppression. This is what I, and other feminists, work towards…” writes Anne Theriault in “The White Feminist Savior Complex.” “My intentions are good and my heart is, as they say, in the right place. Here in the West, we are taught to pity the women, those other women, living in other places, who do not enjoy the same rights that we do. We are taught to be thankful that we are not those women… When we take a closer look at these statements, however, their core message becomes clear: Our culture is better. We are more enlightened, more rational and more civilized.”

When I say that you and I both have baggage, it’s not a put-down. It’s just the reality of the situation. We are all raised in a defining culture that frames our choices and constraints. It doesn’t make us vile; nor does mean that our filters and perceptions are automatically wrong (or right). Nor does it mean that, as change agents, we can overlook, accept or condone the negative baggage of others.

As I go about my social change work, with the best of intentions, I judge culture norms with my cosmopolitan, globalist, liberal, progressive, environmentalist, feminist, economic empowerment, human-dignifying, racially- and ethnically-inclusive values. I’m a mouthful of liberalities and prejudices which define the limits of my tolerance.

Equally, I am judged by others. Community residents, potential partners, clients, customers, local officialdom and merchants assess my intentions, my capabilities and my worth, both as a human being and as a change agent. From that basic and very natural starting point—people, communities and nations begin to build trust.


Social entrepreneurs, by disposition and doctrine, prefer to honor indigenous traditions and promote community autonomy, authority and agency. We honor the differences and distinctions between peoples and cultures. We respect local leaders, local customs and local decision-making. We seek community buy-in.

Until we don’t.

With disruption in my social entrepreneur’s heart, I innovate myself into other people’s business. Change and risk-taking, progress and innovation, all epitomize the ethos of the American change agent. In economic terms: creative destruction. Renewal. Redemption. Rebirth. Whatever you and I call our theory of social change, for the people being disrupted, we are constantly in danger of ‘imposing’ our values on them.

When social entrepreneurs enter a community, we presume a lot. After all, who asked me to show up, dragging along my newfangled ideas about clearing landmines with sniffing rats; fighting malaria with bednets; family planning for women? Clean-burning cookstoves to reduce indoor air pollution? Supply chains to reach consumers in advanced economies? By what right am I in someone else’s community to “fix things” in my image, reflecting my value system, employing my techno-charged innovations, and using my turbo-charged management skills?

Even the tacit expectation that local community members should take time away from their jobs, businesses and families to engage with us to implement our solutions hinges on the hegemonic subtext of money, influence and power. What makes us think we’re worth it? Is it because we’re well-intentioned? Because we bring bags of money? Because we’re smarter?

On the edge of what we think of as “civilization,” people live in their own version of civilized society, ordered in a way I may not be able to see or (if I do see it) respect. “Even exploitation and oppression still make society work and establish some kind of order,” jabs the political theorist Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Orderly or not, some locally-venerated practices and traditions really suck. After learning that slavery in Mauritania is part of the social fabric (not to mention an apparent economic linchpin), I’m still against it. After learning that Bangladeshi textile factories have significantly contributed to reducing the national poverty rate, I still push for worker safety standards. After learning that female genital mutilation is linked to religious practice in Egypt, I still oppose it. After learning that the American death penalty dates back to the founding of the country, I still think it’s barbaric. No doubt, you have examples of your own.

The paradigm challenge for us is captured by the Latin question, Quo warranto? (By what authority?) By what authority are you, or I, or anyone, empowered to resolve the matter at hand?

The thing is: we are doers, not voyeurs. We’re not passive about poverty or pollution. We are not going to stand idle in the face of fascism or unfairness. We are in the justice business, and justice demands our energetic allegiance. Either we take an active part in the world—or a part of who we are is lobotomized.

At the end of the day, social entrepreneurs practice values hegemony. We colonize with a righteous devotion to economic opportunity and ecological sanity. Our bible is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our crusading sword is secular economics. Our votive candles burn on the altar of entrepreneurialism and innovation. I’m a proselytizing missionary, preaching a gospel of progressive ideas about economic, environmental, racial, gender and social justice.


The paradigm challenge for us is captured by the Latin question, Quo warranto? (By what authority?) By what authority are you, or I, or anyone, empowered to resolve the matter at hand? When differences of viewpoint (or complete disagreements) arise, the pivotal question is, Who decides? When injustice, cruelty, economic deprivation, sexism, racism, environmental destruction or human indignity stand unchallenged in the town square, who decides what is best?

Consider this hypothetical from a make-believe village: A well-conducted needs assessment reveals a community consensus for both a religious sanctuary for spiritual refreshment and a saloon for adult refreshment. After much public discussion and debate, but no real controversy, community leaders confirm, without equivocation, the vital importance of both a better church and a bigger cantina. Or, maybe it’s a bigger church and a better cantina. Whatever.

Predictably, our priorities might differ from the community’s. Maybe you and I want to devote our time and money towards building a health clinic or school. Maybe our particular skill sets do not include purveying either prayer or booze. Maybe the government contract, foundation grant or donor dollars underwriting our social entrepreneurship are predicated on deploying farm irrigation systems to increase crop yields, distributing sanitary pads to keep girls in school, or paving roads to move goods to market.

Do we have the right to overrule local opinion? Sometimes? All the time? Never? What would you do? Do you pitch in to rebuild the church, take bartending lessons, or go home? Or, using the power of money, do you enforce your particular priorities and solutions?

In accepting responsibility for social entrepreneurship, you and I accept the inescapable tension between two very legitimate impulses: the impulse to respect a community, and the impulse to change it. Consequently, no matter what we decide our role is (whether that is throwing ourselves at a problem, or doing nothing whatsoever) someone is bound to conclude that it’s the wrong thing to do, or that we are the wrong people to do it (or both).

Take, for instance, the base-of-the-pyramid consumer catalog company Copia (that I cofounded). As we worked to raise the all-important seed capital needed to beta test the idea in the periurban neighborhoods of Nairobi—numerous social impact investors and philanthropists refused to invest because they believed that the catalog should exclusively (or at least overwhelmingly) sell so-called pro-poor products, such as solar lights, healthcare items, water purifiers, clean-burning stoves, irrigation pumps and other consumer products deemed by Westerners as ‘good for people’. Say what?

In an article entitled “Product Paternalism,” I made my position clear: “We might sleep better selling a screened product selection to the poor (that, hypocritically, we would never accept for ourselves), but it ignores the inconvenient fact that… product taxonomies require a flat, static and crimped view of the actual economic lives of the impoverished… In any event, a handy classification system is right in front us: Let the consumer—most probably a female making family purchasing decisions – choose. Yes, the Copia catalog sells solar lights, school supplies, and farm implements. It also sells nail polish, paper towels, diapers, detergent and toys. The consumer, not Copia, decides. Female consumers, businesswomen, mothers, daughters and wives in the developing world don’t need a stack of smartass Westerners—most probably men like me—deciding what they should buy. They can handle that without our brilliance.”

Of course, the frustration we feel is that there are no pat, easy-to follow, hard-and-fast formulas for successfully navigating around our hegemony. Like so much of what we do in the field of social change, in the end you and I rely on our best intuition and open-hearted judgment. Put these six design notions in your pocket:

  1. Step one is listening and learning. Every community, jam-packed with its various subcultures, is a hybrid mix of goodness and badness, a blend of the noble purpose and ignoble means, a mashup of the naive and the sophisticated. “As an organizer, I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be,” notes Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals. “That we accept the world as it is does not, in any sense, weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be.” This is a tough, but necessary, balance requiring clarity of conviction and flexibility of approach.

  2. Simplistic thinking gets us nowhere. In our holy wars (‘fighting’ poverty and ‘fighting’ climate change) we teeter-totter between dueling, and diverging, stereotypes about the communities we care about. On the one hand, the ‘noble savage’ has a vibrant culture and basic dignity worthy of preservation at all costs. On the other, the ‘primitive savage’ has archaic rituals and customs that impede progress (whatever that means). Neither one accurately captures the richness, vibrancy and contradictions inherent in the real lives of the real people in the real places where life is lived whether we are there or not.

  3. To work on systemic, not episodic, solutions, you and I need to immerse ourselves in a community problem set until we sufficiently understand its complexities, creases and crevices. Like wartime spies, social entrepreneurs operate subversively: blending in, taking notes and then taking action to reform systems that favor the few at the expense of the many. Like all ‘spies’, we need local partners, trusted collaborators and activist allies.

  4. “Don’t start by designing fancy solutions; identify underserved needs first,” advises Root Capital CEO Willy Foote in “The Value of Naivete: Three Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs.” “The field of social enterprise is filled with talk of new innovations and disruptive business models. It seems that people are always looking for the next big thing. But often, the solutions are pretty straightforward.”

  5. For our own integrity of mind, it helps to have a little self-awareness. Otherwise, we look like imbeciles. In January 2015, when we added our American voices to the international outcry over the killing of five French journalists (plus seven others) by terrorists, and in the very same month virtually ignored the slaughter of hundreds (maybe thousands) of Nigerians by the terrorist group Boko Haram, we diminished our moral authority. Likewise, when we decry the humanitarian refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe, while neglecting deportation and employment exploitation of Latinos and Southeast Asian immigrants inside the US (or presidential bigotry against Muslims), what fools we must seem.

  6. For my part, I think we do more realistic social change work when we acknowledge that cultural intermixing and cross-border values-sharing are unstoppable. If you have any doubt on this point, come with me to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya where, seven centuries ago, semi-nomadic tribes settled on the savannah. To Western tourists and economic development workers, the Maasai are renowned for their sacred relationship to cattle and for wearing bright red textiles and colorful beaded jewelry. Today, without any apparent concern for tribal cultural pollution, village elders strap on digital watches and hook cell phones to their belts. As agents of change, you and I wouldn’t want it any other way. We want an interconnected world. Importantly, it’s not our decision. It’s theirs.

Jocelyn Wyatt, executive director at, offers humility, not hubris, to protect our good intentions from clumsy implementation:

“Be a learner, not a hero. Before heading abroad, check your intentions. Are you going because you believe you have ideas to share and solutions to introduce? Or are you going because you really want to listen and learn and immerse yourself in the complexity?

“Be a listener, not a giver of advice. Instead of landing with answers to the complex, intractable challenges, engage people on the ground in conversations. Visit their homes and their workplaces, ask them questions and share something about your life with them.

“Be a bridge, not a beacon. Share your creative ideas, but be open to an equal exchange with people who know their own context best. Seek to connect your world of resources to those living without. Work with community-based organizations to write grant proposals, raise money for their organizations or connect them with press opportunities. For many of us, our networks are the most important asset we can bring. Imagine how you can leverage your networks rather than thinking of yourself as a solution-creator.”

Most of all, it seems reasonable to expect that people living without advantage (defined however you like) have a unique expertise about their own lives. It also seems reasonable to assume that social entrepreneurs, economic development experts and policy gurus have valid expertise. Start a conversation. Ask. Suggest. Listen. Learn. Ask again.


Hegemony is a heavy word. At the very least, it connotes a differential in power, autonomy and agency. Like a boorish, unwelcome party crasher, it bespeaks an arrogant disregard for the rights, needs and wishes of others.

For a human-level example, in some cultures people believe that a photograph steals your soul. To my atheist way of thinking, this is superstition. Regardless, I certainly don’t want to ‘steal’ anyone’s soul. I have enough trouble with my own. Thus, when it comes to photographing people, I am the ethical anthropologist.

In contrast, when it comes to upsetting local health practices (also religiously- or superstitiously-based), I have no qualms. For instance, I have no reservations quarreling with the Catholic Church about women’s reproductive rights or introducing (over the objections of the local shaman) vaccines and cures for measles, polio, diphtheria, meningitis, yellow fever and tuberculosis.

Honestly, I don’t have a working hypothesis about why respecting one set of local customs or traditions, and not another, is defensible. At first blush, you or I might postulate that health care matters more than a silly photograph, but many would argue that a person’s religion and soul matter even more. At this point in my social entrepreneurship career, the best I can say is: I’m still learning.

From the realm of personal friendships, perhaps there is a useful prototype for calibrating the scales of intended and unintended hegemony. A friendship is satisfying and productive, and indeed can only exist, when both parties offer mutual respect, mutual learning and mutual interest. Friendship is reciprocal, or dual, agency.

My agency and community agency, my agency and your agency, are of a piece. If my eternal remit is to be who and what I am, then surely it’s fair-minded to promote the agency of all those around me so they, too, can be who and what they are. We might just call that the beginnings of community-minded social entrepreneurship.