Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Is Social Entrepreneurship a Middle Class Opiate?

Tunde, a good friend of mine, raised an important question in response to one of my previous posts - Bow Ties, Crazy Socks, and Hip-Hop: Tactics for Successful Intrapreneurship - which I have been mulling over for the past two weeks. He posited: isn't social entrepreneurship just an opiate for the middle class? Though it's possible to dismiss this question as outlandish, I think it mirrors an important debate in the Social - X (fill in the "X" with impact, intrapreneurship, entrepreneurship, etc.) movement...who are social entrepreneurs really serving? Are they serving others or are they serving themselves?

Anyway, I'm glad Tunde brought it up because I think he's right. At very least, social entrepreneurship can be an opiate for the middle class, and that possibility merits preventative action to ensure that social entrepreneurship (or other Social - X's) exist for reasons broader than being an opiate for the middle class.

What I think Tunde means by opiate is that it's an externally introduced activity that soothes the anxieties of the user and distracts them from the difficulties of their reality. Even more extreme, I think he means that the opiate of social entrepreneurship distracts the privileged from the full extent of the issues facing disadvantaged communities. I'll let Tunde weigh in and will update this post with any remarks he adds. For now, this is the working definition of "opiate" I'll use throughout this post.

[Here's a placeholder for Tunde's response. I'll update this placeholder should be reply with any remarks.]

I have often questioned the intention of certain social entrepreneurs, especially those widely publicized in mass-media publications. There's something about the air of those folks which is arrogant and condescending instead of inquisitive and humble. Moreover, some of the innovations presented by social entrepreneurs seem to be surprisingly self interested or misaligned with the real, palpable needs that the intended "customer" actually needs. Here's an example of a misaligned need - as told through a recount of why Bill Gates is less than amused by Google's (and others') attempts to provide internet access to the global poor.

It is this behavior - serving yourself more than serving others - that I see as the hat tip for social entrepreneurship as an opiate. This is because not serving a customer's need shows that you're interested in soothing yourself than serving another. Maybe Social Entrepreneurs are interested in looking cool (which is entirely possible when you're looking to get press to satiate a high-profile funder, rather than depending on a customer's payment to perpetuate your existence). Maybe social entrepreneurs hate their corporate job and hope social impact will alleviate their need to do something meaningful or interesting with their time. Maybe they're just curious people who think social entrepreneurship will allow them to travel to interesting places across the globe. The reason for "opiating" themselves - if that's what they are doing - could be anything. It's certainly possible.

What's more important is that this "opiating" I've described is presumably harmful. Like I said before, the processes of selfish social entrepreneurship could distract from real, needed social interventions by conveying the perception that the needy are being served. Perhaps more importantly though, is the chance that the growth of social entrepreneurship is a symptom not of social injustice but the disengagement of most workers from more traditional forms of employment.

Let me explain. In some senses, social entrepreneurship could be an opiate because it makes social entrepreneurs feel good and/or helps distract them from the fact that high-minded social interventions are all that matters in improving social outcomes for the world's most disadvantaged. But the "opiate effect" could also be people trying to make up for the fact that they hate their jobs and feel disengaged from them. (Note, I don't think disengagement is a good metric, but it's the most easily accessible to make this point right now.)

I'd like to note, I'm not suggesting that all social entrepreneurs are selfish, and self-aggrandizing. I'm merely suggesting that it's very reasonable to think that social entrepreneurs use their craft as an opiate. Moreover, I'm suggesting that because there's a clear path to using social entrepreneurship as an opiate, and that using social entrepreneurship as an opiate might indicate a presence of harm, we should be intentional about alleviating that harm.

I think there's at least one simple way to prevent social entrepreneurship from becoming an opiate for the middle classes: have real, authentic experiences inform efforts to pursue social entrepreneurship. In my limited forays to deeply understand social ills, I've found that  - by experiencing the "front-lines" - it's not only informative, it's also humbling. Without understanding real, front-line needs, it's very easy to have a ivory-tower-esque solutions which are well received at cocktail parties (and well intentioned) by those who have no idea what's really going on in the lives of real people. That's where the disingenuousness fixes itself - by trying to understand the issues of real people (being "close to the customer", if you will) it's much easier to take effective, authentic intervening action.

Here's the rub, though.

The larger, and I suspect more transformational, opportunity to improving both employee and societal welfare is to give people ways of making an impact in their corporate jobs. That's why my focus is starting to shift from social entrepreneurship to social intrapreneurship. Through social intrapreneurship you have more resources to do good and you can generate more social returns that way. It's just not as sexy to talk about.


But enough of my opinion, what do you think? Does anyone even reject the premise of the question? I'd love to hear what you think.