Community Entrepreneurship: Solving Problems and Weaving Society Back Together

“The idea of ‘social entrepreneurship’ has struck a responsive chord. … Though the concept of ‘social entrepreneurship’ is gaining popularity, it means different things to different people. … The language of social entrepreneurship may be new, but the phenomenon is not. We have always had social entrepreneurs, even if we did not call them that.”

Gregory Dees (Faculty Director, Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, Duke University). “The Meaning of ‘Social Entrepreneurship” May 30, 2001.

Attending the Skoll World Forum in 2019, it’s easy to forget its humble beginnings in 2004. Back then, the very concept of social entrepreneurship was ambiguous. Since then, 16 Skoll World Forums have followed, Roger Martin and Sally Osberg wrote “Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition” (2007), and they published Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works (2015). In the meantime, several academic centers—such as the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship—launched and helped shape the concept’s development. Today, the language is relatively commonplace, and a field has formed.

Social entrepreneurship—which typically manifests as formal organizations, strategic plans, fundraising among public and private sources, revenue models—is just one ‘slice’ of the entire spectrum of effort to make the world a better place. Along this spectrum, there exists another phenomenon that is not new, though the language used to describe it is—community entrepreneurship. The 2019 Forum session, “Community Entrepreneurship: Solving Problems and Weaving Society Back Together”, felt like one of the first few steps on a journey to legitimize and accelerate this phenomenon.

Community Entrepreneurship: Towards a Definition

Deepti Doshi—who “leads a new effort at Facebook focused on building a new industry of community entrepreneurship in conjunction with ecosystem partners”—kicked the session off with a few key observations:

  • Community is the two-way relationship between one person and a group of people, in which each person trusts and invests in the group, in return for safety, connection, and belonging. In other words, a community is not just a group of people that is serving, or being served by, another; a dynamic relationship is essential. In turn, community entrepreneurship is “doing [the] hard work of weaving our society back together in this moment of deep social fragmentation and polarization.”
  • The broader social change field needs to move away from a top-down community ‘management’ frame and toward the more networked community ‘entrepreneurship’ frame—through which we can enable people to become leaders in their communities to rebuild trust and social capital.
  • Community entrepreneurship is undergoing the same evolution that social entrepreneurship went through over the past two decades. Like the field of social entrepreneurship, community entrepreneurship too needs capital, public and institutional engagement, talent development, professional identify, etc. Also, since the story of rebuilding trust and social capital is difficult to tell and doesn’t neatly fit in Excel spreadsheets or M&E frameworks, a new language is needed.

Case Studies of Community Entrepreneurship

Deepti and Facebook’s Community Leadership Program (FCLP) have already started to establish community entrepreneurship as a discipline and field. Equipped with contributions ranging from $50,000 to $1 million, year-long training, and a support network, the FCLP’s participants use Facebook groups and other means to mobilize around local, deeply personal problems. Participants are showing how this “grassroots, very organic way of solving problems [and] connecting people to one another” helps build strong and meaningful relationships, quickly exchange knowledge and/or resources, side-step bureaucracies, and more. Fortunately, some of them joined the session as panelists, and made the concept real for the audience:

  • Lola Omolola shared her realization that in the face of misery and violence, women in Nigeria were not able to express themselves and were staying silent. So, she started the “Female In Nigeria” private Facebook Group, to enable women to share their experiences (e.g. domestic violence) and connect with those who can listen and help. “A regular woman from modest means,” Lola described how she helped build an international, 1.5 million-strong community of women (now called Female IN) addressing a range of issues in their lives. (Later in the session, Lola shared she had noticed a disconnect between the conversations she had at the Forum so far and the lived realities of those in the Female IN community.)
  • Inspired by their work with social enterprises in India, sisters Alejandra and Vanessa Peña returned to Ecuador, where they co-founded an online group and in-person conference (AWEIK) to build a community of young social entrepreneurs in Latin America. Together, they are legitimizing social entrepreneurship as a career path and way of doing business.
  • Following her scholarship to study at the University of Hong Kong—made possible by a mention of the scholarship from a friend—Htet Thiri Shwe started Myanmar Youth Empowerment Opportunities to enable youth in Myanmar to find similar opportunities. Today, MYEO is an online community that connects thousands of youth with scholarship, internship, and exchange program opportunities.
  • Seeing little progress toward reducing Nigeria’s child mortality rate, and the popularity of Facebook among mothers, Gbemisola Boyede started the Ask the Pediatricians Facebook group—a platform where mothers can seek expert advice from child health professionals. In turn, mothers show off healthy practices for their babies (e.g. breastfeeding), and even lend each other support offline. Today, Ask the Pediatricians is a registered organization that, in addition to hosting the 500,000+ online community, conducts health workshops and provides support to vulnerable children.
  • Noah Nasiali, an IT specialist and farmer, recounted how an aid organization once contracted him to plant six acres of cabbage, but the buyer never showed up. Stuck with 75,000 rotting cabbages, he realized that though he could bounce back, this would’ve ruined many other farmers. So, he created the Africa Farmers Club to help farmers share their stories and exchange tips and resources. To serve farmers without a smartphone, the Club is also building an offline community.

Later, one audience member thanked the panelists for “bringing community organizing to 2.0”. But this begs a question: given recent backlash and even a call from co-founder Chris Hughes for government intervention, is Facebook appropriating an age-old phenomenon and re-branding it in its own image and toward its own ends? Maybe.

Perhaps in this era of rising uncertainty and anxiety, a charitable stance is warranted. According to Deepti, Facebook is responsible for and working toward understanding and curbing the influence of bad actors. Regardless, as the examples above demonstrate, “building a community is not pushing a few buttons on your phone and starting a Facebook group; it really is an act of courageous and moral leadership.”

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