In working on another project, I came across this article about Rodney Sampson’s new book that, among other things, positions Martin Luther King, Jr. as a “social entrepreneur.” Dr. King is not the first historical figure to be graced with the title of social entrepreneur. John Muir, Florence Nightingale and others have also been remembered as such.
With social entrepreneurship being a relatively new idea, emerging during the 1980’s and 1990’s, I find these references to the past intriguing. If entrepreneurship is driven by new and unconventional approaches, why tie social entrepreneurship to idols of our past?
Sociologists tell us that identities (both individual and collective) are social projects and as such are formed by situating ourselves within social and historical contexts. References to figures such as MLK and John Muir are thus likely a part of social entrepreneurs’ identity creation process. Still, why reference social and political heroes when the social entrepreneur has been positioned as the “capitalist savior” stepping in to save the public sector from itself (as discussed briefly in my earlier post on this topic)?
While not overly familiar with the literature on collective memory, I am aware of one theoretical thread within this work that suggests our past is constructed to address the problems and needs we face in the present.* From this perspective, it seems the historical references mentioned above can shed light on the challenges faced by contemporary social entrepreneurs—challenges that tend to be overlooked or understated (perhaps because they threaten a widely-held cultural belief in the boundless potential of the private sector to address social concerns). Examples of such challenges include whether and how social entrepreneurs can overcome the ideological divides that currently separate the public and private sectors, how they can insert the essential entrepreneurial element of risk into a relatively risk-averse setting and how they can bolster support in the face of very few stories of success.
I am still very early in my thought process on this topic (and welcome other ideas and thoughts!), but I posit that ‘early social entrepreneurs’ are being used to address such challenges. MLK, Muir and Nightingale are doing the cultural work needed to facilitate the trust and hope essential to the success of social entrepreneurship; they are something in which people can believe, even if social entrepreneurship itself might not be quite there yet. In this way, these historical references suggest that social entrepreneurship, to be successful, not only requires economic resources but social and cultural resources as well.
*For more on collective memory, see Olick, Vinitzky-Seroussi and Levy’s text