Give entrepreneurs the tools they need, and watch the world change

November 14, 2011

Rupert Scofield is the President and CEO of FINCA International and the author of the new book The Social Entrepreneur’s Handbook: How to Start, Build, and Run a Business That Improves the World.

It seems that we have lost sight of a simple truth in the midst of today’s global economic and social turmoil: Giving people the tools they need to become entrepreneurs is perhaps the strongest solution we have for the challenges we face.

This week is Global Entrepreneurship Week. Individuals around the world will highlight the transformative power of entrepreneurship. Rarely are we given the chance to address an issue that so directly affects everyone from the unemployed merchant on Main Street America to the struggling farmer in rural Africa. We must amplify these voices and catalyze a public discussion about spurring the creation of small enterprises in both the developed and developing worlds. In doing so, we must also expand our definition of entrepreneurship to more definitively include social ventures, which both create jobs and also fill voids left by dwindling public resources.

The importance of entrepreneurship to global economics is hard to overstate. Nearly 250 million people are involved in entrepreneurial activity, according to the latest 2010 survey by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), a not-for-profit research consortium that analyzes data from 59 diverse economies. GEM found that 63 million of those people anticipate hiring five employees over the next five years, while 27 million individuals anticipate hiring twenty or more employees in that span.

In the U.S., there is clearly a huge amount of entrepreneurial energy to be fostered and unleashed. The Kauffman Foundation, which sponsors GEW, released a study in March that showed more Americans became entrepreneurs in 2010 than at any time in the last 15 years. Nearly 565,000 new small businesses were created in 2010. In the developing world, rates of entrepreneurial activity in some countries, particularly in Africa, have skyrocketed in the last decade, contributing to historic economic growth rates. While the situation remains fragile due to the continuing downturn, people’s eagerness to launch new ideas and businesses remains as strong as ever.

Business entrepreneurship is only one part of the global equation. Social entre­pre­neur­ship — creating enterprises that exist to address social problems or to remedy “market failures” — is just as important. As public resources for social and environmental programs come under budgetary pressure, self-financing social enterprises become even more relevant. And, according to research by the Skoll Foundation, momentum for these transformative types of projects has greatly increased over the last decade, as new and innovative organizations created technology and other tools to solve social and environmental problems.

This trend is likely to continue, and there are four key things that can nurture this promising movement:

1. Don’t rely on government to solve your problems: Our broken political system is dominated by wealthy interests who fight for the status quo and media outlets that nurture polarization. The resulting stagnation is making social problems worse, while also making it harder for entrepreneurs to get their ventures off the ground. If you’re thinking about taking the plunge, don’t depend on the government. Look to places like your local community foundation for start-up support.

2. Think creatively about partnerships: Businesses and social enterprises together can create huge impact. The more links you can build between the sectors, the better results we’ll achieve.

3. Foster opportunities for youth: No group has more potential than young people for affecting change – and, indeed, their futures depend on it. Thousands of U.S. and international universities now offer entrepreneurship courses, but financiers and foundations must be more accessible to young people who have the hunger, but not the resources, to start their own enterprises.

4. Overcome the fear: At its core, entrepreneurship is about individuals overcoming their fear of failure and taking the plunge. Even if you fail, you will never regret having tried, and will have acquired valuable life experiences along the way that will help you to succeed wherever you eventually find yourself.

With simple and concrete steps, plus a good bit of courage, we can unleash global entrepreneurial energy to drive real economic and social change.

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