By Resolution Fellows Jean Paul Laurent, Hannah Dehradunwala, Samir Goel
Our parents' generation wouldn't recognize what we call entrepreneurship today. What's more, they probably wouldn't have viewed start-ups to be a legitimate career choice for a college graduate straight out of school. Entrepreneurship (and, more specifically, social entrepreneurship) requires the courage to innovate to change something for the better. A new idea and the tenacity to make it happen are the key ingredients, along with a lot of resources and effort. We are three young social entrepreneurs, and in the midst of growing our ventures every day, we wanted to share our reflections on what it means to be a young entrepreneur with a heart.
"You are a leader of the future," we often heard in school. "Someday, when you have the right experience, you might start something great," went the narrative. When would it be time? Could our passion projects ever get off the ground, make a difference, and allow us to make a living? Having the power to address pressing social issues attracts millennials like us to entrepreneurship in the first place. Gaining traction in the rapidly burgeoning community of social entrepreneurs around the world makes that prospect even more exciting. So millennials who have ideas are making a choice, and it's not just because fewer "old economy" jobs await us.
Corporate and social endeavors often seem like opposites, vying for the resources and great people needed for growth. The mind should pull toward profit and comfort while the heart should seek to help others, right? Joining an organization or starting one presents an equally stark choice. The decision is neither simple, nor is there a single broad answer. Many of us will rise in an organization and walk time-honored paths successfully, gaining experience and capacity for future endeavors. Most would suggest taking on less risk, at least initially. Undoubtedly, social enterprise at a young age provides no guarantees of success, a paycheck, or even impact that lasts. But the reality, now, is that both ways are open and collaboration occurs more frequently than ever.
Investing in an early stage idea, feeding it with resources, and nurturing it with a network are enormous factors that contribute to many young people's ability to pursue the entrepreneur's path. It eliminates the idea that there is some perfect time at which it is best to chase an idea for social change. A decade ago, there were fewer resources for aspiring young entrepreneurs trying their hand at innovation around the world. Today, a huge ecosystem surrounds us as we shift away from traditional career paths.
Organizations like The Resolution Project, where we are Resolution Fellows, influence our first steps and our growth as social entrepreneurs. Resolution invests in early stage, student-led social start-ups, providing a strong combination of funding, mentorship, services, credibility, and a community of peers that makes entrepreneurship so much less lonely. Resolution is not alone; along with organizations like Echoing Green, Ashoka, and others, these early stage social entrepreneurship launchpads provide us with a safe space, rich in resources, advice, and support, so we can test models and push innovation. It comes down to seeing a problem that you think is solvable and employing all of the resources within your reach towards developing a sustainable system to tackle it.
We have made our choice; we are social entrepreneurs and our organizations got the support we needed to launch even while we remained in school. Initially, we didn't envision ourselves as social entrepreneurs, but when you find yourself with an idea that you think you can run with, you run. So we started two social ventures: Transfernation, run by Samir and Hannah, and The Unspoken Smiles Foundation, run by JP. Transfernation is a technology-driven non-profit organization which ensures extra food from corporate events goes to supporting underserved communities. The Unspoken Smiles Foundation is a non-profit organization which provides dental care and hygiene education to rural communities in Haiti. To date, Transfernation has rescued 12,000 pounds of food and Unspoken Smiles has helped well over 1,000 children in Haiti, and we're just getting started. We didn't exactly intend to be social entrepreneurs, but thanks to organizations like Resolution, we began to understand how we could drive social impact and make careers out of it.
Being a young social entrepreneur demands creativity, resourcefulness, and hard work. It requires evolution, reinvention, improvisation, and accepting that you're not going to know exactly where you're going or how exactly you'll get there (or whether you'll even know you've made it!). It wouldn't be called innovation if it had already been done before. It involves looking at a problem in an unconventional way, while facing conventional criticism. That said, the quality of your work, the amount of time you're willing and eager to put into it, and the satisfaction of working for something bigger than yourself is incredibly rewarding. The beauty of entering the business of impact is that the necessary knowledge and skills become accessible as you go, and your ability to create collaborative systems becomes more of a lifestyle than a job.
It's important to note that we don't measure our success in dollars alone. Sure, a social business can and often does scale and generate significant investor returns. But social impact is the ultimate end goal of social entrepreneurship; creating a change in society. Impact can be measured in the pounds of food redistributed, or the number of people who now have access to dental care, but it cannot start without an individual who sees him or herself as an active part of the problem, but more importantly as an active driver of the solution. We don't need to ring the bell on the stock exchange floor, but we have started to see social ventures do just that. As stark as our choices early in life may be, the pathways and sectors are merging around us.
So yes, our parents might not have had the chance to consider becoming young social entrepreneurs, but the world has changed. We have the passion and the vision; we have the innovation and the solutions; we have the ecosystem of support and unprecedented collaboration between sectors; and we have each other. It seems like now is as good a time as any.
Jean Paul Laurent is the Founder and CEO of Unspoken Smiles Foundation, Resolution Fellow, Award Winning Social Entrepreneur, Published Author, Dental Hygienist, NYU Alumni, Executive MPA Candidate at Columbia SIPA, Class of 2017.
Hannah Dehradunwala is the Co-founder & Executive Director of Transfernation, a nonprofit technology-driven solution to food waste in NYC, a Resolution Fellow, and a senior at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study.
Samir Goel is the co-founder and chair of Transfernation, a Resolution Fellow, a BLP Associate at LinkedIn, and Contributor for various publications focused on social issues, entrepreneurship, and technology.