I participated in the semi-finalist judging this past week of the Dell Social Innovation Competition, run by the University of Texas’s RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service. The competition invites undergraduate and graduate level students from colleges worldwide to submit business or nonprofit venture plans. The goal of the competition is to encourage and train students to use entrepreneurial practices in the creation of creative solutions to the world’s most entrenched social problems. Through three elimination rounds of competition one winner is chosen to receive $50,000 for their venture. This year over 1,500 students representing 33 countries studying at hundreds of universities around the globe entered their ideas.
This is the third year of the competition. Last year’s winner, Husk Power Systems, turns discarded rice husks into energy in India. The social enterprise is so innovative they even found a way to turn the ash from the burned husks into fertilizer and cement. Husk Power Systems was named FastCompany’s Social Enterprise of the Year last year.
The judging process culminated last night in our final decision making meeting. We were charged with narrowing the 75 semi-finalists down to 3 finalists and an alternate. Those finalists will be announced today. It was in some ways an overwhelming charge; the ideas and energy of the applicants was amazing.
In the process of judging, however, I was struck by two things. First, it seems that there is something happening in this generation of students. When I was in graduate school, towards the end of the dot-com era, most student interest and energy was channelled towards technology opportunities. So many of my classmates were swept up in the dot-com craze, hoping to become the next multi-millionaire entrepreneur. Many thought the old notions of profitability, company valuation, business planning were outdated. Dot-coms were ushering in an entirely new business model that was breaking all the rules. Obviously that didn’t pan out.
Now it seems a new energy and excitement is sweeping college and graduate school campuses. But this energy and excitement has a much more benevolent spin to it. Now the rage is to create a social enterprise, to become a social enterpreneur. The Dell competition is one of countless social enterprise competitions across the globe. There are so many problems facing our world from tremendous poverty and disease, to global warming, to inadequate food and energy supplies, to disparate educational opportunities. The push is no longer to find the next greatest technology in order to make money, but rather to find the next greatest technology in order to save lives or save the planet. That’s a really interesting switch. And an exciting, inspiring one.
Which brings me to the second thing that struck me. Just as there was hubris in the dot-com boom, I can’t help but wonder if there might be just a little hubris in this trend as well. I don’t want to dampen the energy and excitement of this generation of idealist at all. I marvel at their resolve to work towards righting so many disequilibriums. But I do wonder if some of the social enterprises that emerge, not necessarily in this competition, are borne of Americans thinking that they have the answer to what ails other countries. I think true solutions to the world’s problems have to be envisioned and created locally, that is to say a social entrepreneur needs to spend some serious time living, breathing, researching and listening to the market they are trying to penetrate. They also need to find significant local partners to suggest, refine and challenge solutions. Western countries can absolutely offer ideas and certainly resources to make those solutions a reality, but I’d hate to see anyone in this new generation acting like the missionaries of the 19th and 20th centuries bringing “answers” to developing countries.
That’s not to say that any of the plans we reviewed suffered this fate. Rather, I’m merely offering a caution to the great idealists of this new generation. By all means, keep the ideas, energy, enthusiasm and initiative coming. But at the same time, let’s take a step back and make sure that the ventures being created are locally grown and developed. That is the only way that they will truly be sustainable solutions.