Is taking action unique to Millenials? Is volunteering a trend that will die out?
We sat down with Susan Davis, President & CEO of BRAC USA, a branch of an international organization dedicated to alleviating poverty by empowering the poor. She's also the co-author of Social Entrepreneurship, a book that encourages young people to be...well, social entrepreneurs. Here's what Susan had to tell us
What does it mean to be a social entrepreneur?
It's a label about a growing phenomenon. It's been inspired by people who have very tenacious traits. Like you may say “I’m very upset because we’re getting really fat. We never exercise our bodies and everybody cuts P.E." And this is ultimately connected to child obesity and heart disease. And so you start thinking, “well what do I do about it?” Maybe you need to organize a club or a campaign. The problem definition and the solution that you come up with is the heart of social entrepreneurship.
Were you trying to inform and inspire everyone that was capable of social change with this book?
Everybody can be a change maker. The way we’re going to solve the big problems in this world is to unleash the power of every person to participate in improving the situation. So if you don’t have water, instead of saying, someone should do something about that, some government, some rich person, some foreigners, you say “What can we do to create water here, in our community?”
How old were you when you first decided to be a social entrepreneur?
I was planning my 30th birthday party. I wanted to go to Africa. I have an old professor friend who said he would talk to his other friend at the Ford Foundation. He knows everything about Africa. They offer me a job to go to Bangladesh. I’m like “I’m not here for a job interview, I’m planning a party.”
Long story short, I do go look at the country, I really wanted to take that job. It seemed like a great adventure where I would really learn a lot.
I go to Africa. On my 30th birthday, 30 elephants come right up to me and I took it as a sign that this must be destiny. So I took this big risk, it changed my life totally from New York to Bangladesh. As a result, I’ve been able to witness the rise of social entrepreneurship and micro finance. And the key is taking risks and being open to new possibilities.
What happens if somebody doesn’t take risks?
Well, your life may be more boring hahah.
What would be your advice for young people that want to take action on international issues specifically development goals?
Get smart. The education of an American kid is really important in trying to understand what’s the reality of a kid growing up in another country. We've had young people in the Chicago area raise just around $4,000 hosting car washes and bake sales and all sorts of things to sponsor and create a school for kids in Southern Sudan. And they learned a lot about Southern Sudan, they understand what a school is, and learned what it was like to not have the chance to go to school, and then made that happen.
To you, what are Millenium Development Goals?
8 goals. 7 of them are directed to making change in each country. They were a direct result of lobbying and advocacy work by people like me, grassroots groups, to try to push governments of the world to make specific commitments to do something - to reduce poverty, to reduce hunger and malnutrition, to stop mothers and babies from dying, to get kids in school, especially equal numbers of boys and girls. The failure of those UN conferences and the failure of governments to commit to very specific action plans resulted in a desire when we turned the year 2000. People said, “alright heads-of-state let’s commit to this." We wanted quantifiable goals that were achievable so we pushed for and got the MDGs. The 8th goal is about development cooperation. Sort of the role of rich countries and solidarity with the poor.
What was your proudest moment was in your career?
When I am able to go back to a village where I had visited and saw families that didn’t have but one meal a day, didn’t have clean water. I go back and they’re doing really well, I can’t tell you… that is just a peak experience for me. We are so privileged in this country even though you may not be born or have a wealthy family. And I guess, what I really have loved, is anything I can do to blow wind under the wings of others as they’re trying to find their way. I love to work with young people. Helping young people get their stride.
Is being an entrepreneur something you’re born with?
I don’t believe this inherent thing. Entrepreneurial qualities can be nurtured. I’m not talking about starting your own organization when I use the term entrepreneurial behavior. I think you can be entrepreneurial in any chair that you’re sitting in. The entrepreneur thinks, “I can figure out how to sell water here. There’s an untapped market.”
The person who says “Well I really need to pay off my student loans. I want to be a lawyer. I want to work in a law firm.” alright that’s fine. But what do you do in that law firm? Do you just follow orders? Or do you influence what kind of law they practice? Or what kind of pro bono they do?
In your book you said that social entrepreneurship can be a success or a failure depending on a number of factors. What would you say is the most important factor?
Probably the success will be in the entrepreneurial abilities of the person. One of the things that you need to do is learn how to adapt, so you need to know the difference between being persistent in needing to learn and adapt your strategies. So if you’re banging on the door and it doesn’t open, maybe you need to use the crowbar, or something, and open it that way, or maybe you need to go around and find the window and open that.
What would you use to measure the success of this book?
People putting the book down and going and following their dreams. It would be finding the courage of their own convictions; it’d be passing it to 10 other friends that they care about and encouraging them and saying “see? They’re saying in this book you can do it, just go do it!”
Let’s say you're 17 and you’re at home right now. You don’t have any money to give and you don’t necessarily have a car. What is the way to help with social entrepreneurship?
Well, social entrepreneurship is just a big, fancy term for do something.
What can you do?
Like Susan says, educate yourself. Visit our cause section to know more about the issue you are solving.
Already taking action? Upload your video explaining your story of change.