Social Entrepreneurship – a good (but not great) book to read

Book review of Social Entrepreneurship

My introduction to David Bornstein’s writing was How to change the world. And I think that it is an excellent book and I will recommend reading it. So, when I found out (well Amazon told me !) that he was collaborating with Susan Davis (of Grameen foundation) to write a book on Social Entrepreneurship, I said, sign me up for it. What caught my eye was not the title of the book but the subtitle of it – What everyone needs to know (about social entrepreneurship). The table of contents was also impressive

  1. Defining social entrepreneurship
  2. Challenges of causing change
  3. Envisioning an innovating society

The table of contents didn’t talk about anything specific and I thought may be the contents would be a bit more specific. But, I was a tad disappointed that the book is not as specific as I would have liked it to be.

Let’s look at each section. The first section is the definition of social entrepreneurship. This section gives enough background about social entrepreneurship. For those who don’t have an active interest in this field, I think this section does an excellent job about giving enough background regarding the field. This section is sort of a primer for soc-entrepreneurs, defining the typical characteristics of a social entrepreneur, when the field as a separate entity got recognized and which are the important organizations currently in operation. This section is definitely recommended for anyone who wants to know how social entrepreneurship differs from (say) activism. And there is a section which deals with that too. The definition clearly gives a perspective on social entrepreneurship. Quoting the book

Activism can be thought of as a subset of social entrepreneurship, one of the many tactics employed to advance change. The simplest distinction is that, activists generally seek to elicit change by influencing decision making of large institutions or by changing public attitudes, while social entrepreneurs pursue a wider range of options, including building institutions that directly implement solutions themselves.

This provides the clear distinction between an activist protesting about something and a social entrepreneur tackling the same problem (say for example, the childline in India) by starting an organization. Another important sub-section in this section is the What does a social entrepreneur do?. This section defines the role of a social entrepreneur. From the book –

The system changer must therefore overcome apathy, habit, incomprehension, and disbelief while facing heated resistance from those with vested interests. Social entpreneurs have to figure out how to make it happen.

I think, that sort of defines the role of a social entrepreneur.

The second section is about the challenges of causing change. Very few people like change, even though change might be constant. It is the struggle to get acceptance for the change which is the first hurdle for any social entrepreneur. And the next challenge is the finance. Or may be it is the other way round ! Finance of the operation is a major struggle for any entrepreneur, even more so for a social entrepreneur. Unlike an entrepreneur, there might not be financial returns for a social entrepreneur; and even if there were; they might be either meagre or insufficient, happening in a sporadic fashion. Given the uncertainty of the returns, the first concern for any social entrepreneur is to raise the finances for the cause for his/her own sustenance and eventually the organization’s growth. In this section, the authors explain the various ways social organizations have raised capital. Organizations like The Skoll foundation, Ashoka, Civic ventures, New profit inc, micro-entrepreneur connectors like Kiva, RangDe (the authors don’t write about RangDe), KYC4 are the typical sources of funding.One important thing to note though – all of these organizations are willing to fund entrepreneurs who are willing to execute on a plan. It is very important to understand that a social entrepreneur should have some sort of an operation going before (s)he can garner more founds from these organizations. Merely having an idea and looking for funds generally doesn’t help. Another challenge for any social entrepreneur is attracting talent and scaling the organization. This is going to be always a challenge. That is why you will never see a very large social organization. Even if they are, they typically would be backed by some public body ensuring a constant fund-stream. So, it is important for social entrepreneurs to understand these challenges. In this section, the authors explain some of the challenges, though, they do admit that attracting good talent is going to be a challenge. It is about the person appealing to a different aspect of the prospective employee to interest him/her to join the organization. Of course, the cause alone won’t be able to attract talent and enough financial incentive should be available for anyone to join an organization.

An interesting sub-section in this one is – What is the difference between scale and impact. In this section, the authors write about how a larger impact can be made by organizations which already have the scale. It is like how Thomas Friedman explains in this interview about changing leaders instead of bulbs. Unless there is no scale, all we will have is a hobby. Though, that seems a bit far too hard on people dealing with micro-changes, it is something that should be at the back of everyone’s mind. However much impact is important, scale is equally important too. So, it is not about starting an idea alone, it is also about scaling that idea that a social entrepreneur (a successful one i.e.) thinks about.

The final section is very generic. It talks about how to inculcate the qualities of innovation in a society. Most of it is applicable for for-profit enterprises too. So, I won’t delve too much into it. There is though, one part of this where the authors talk about how philanthropy can be more effective. This is an important aspect of any social organization and for the funding organizations. In this, the authors suggest a few things to philanthropists about how to engage with social entrepreneurs. Things like

  • Help social entrepreneurs engage more with businesses and governments
  • Fund structural supports for social entrepreneurs
  • Stick with things that work and communicate early (I think this is contrary to the next one)
  • let organizations die (an implication of this is that people should be willing to try things that might not work too)
  • Help social entrepreneurs work together

The final section is very interesting, wherein the authors talk about how individuals can prepare themselves to be part of a the field of social entrepreneurship. This is sort of a high level design document about what one can do before becoming a social entrepreneur full time. The authors don’t get very specific, they talk very generally about what are things that one can do. It would have been nicer if they could have gotten a bit specific and illustrate with some examples of existing social organizations.

So, what do I think about this book. I think this book is a good one. I expected specific examples like the previous work of one of the authors. But this book is not about specifics. And the flow is not always kept going. The narrative can drift away sometimes. I read this book twice to get the gist of it (it is not a very large book). Maybe because I was aware of most of the things that the authors were talking about, I didn’t find it very interesting. Maybe for someone who is a beginner in the field, it might be very helpful. I will still suggest this book – whether you are a pro or a beginner in the field. A 6 out of 10.

Democratization of book reading

Democratzation of the Internet. How many times have we heard of this expression. Quite a few times I would think. For example, Google helps small business get the visibility that they would not have otherwise got. And that is a very powerful idea. In a swoop, the Internet (OK, technically not the Inter-webs but the various sites like Google, Lulu, eBay, Amazon, Yahoo and the rest) has created a level playing field. And these are large businesses that don’t even have a brick and mortar presence. Wait, you are reading this, wondering what it is that I am talking about. This is what the 90s was about. This was what computer magazines and business magazines were hailing when I was in college (yes, that was long ago !). But one area where there was no level playing field was books. And when I said level playing field, I don’t mean for the publishers or the authors or for the enablers like Amazon, but for people like me – the readers. And how is it the case you wonder ! And I shall explain.

The lack of level playing field is the access to books. In India, there was a very limited selection of books that I could get my hands on. In Bangalore, the sources of books were

  • Blossoms
  • Gangarams
  • Bookworm
  • Crossword

And the last one was more mirrors and mainstream books than anything else. I have nothing against Crossword, but somehow, I feel that their idea of having a coffee shop and a book store beside each other, like one can do in Borders in the US didn’t take off. And after a while, they did not, (for a good reason) allow readers to take books to the coffee shop. And in Madras, Landmark and the Moore market were my favorite joints (like any other book-lover from Madras can vouch for). And to digress a bit, the Landmark in Bangalore feels like a supermarket instead of a book-store. Atleast the one in Madras feels more like a book-store. And in Hyderabad, well, it was the Sunday street-side vendors in Abids. I have been told that the bookstores in Kothi alongside the women’s college have made way to development activities. Of course, I always felt that Hyderabad was the laggard when it comes to books; and no, Walden really is not a redeeming feature.

Given the above, one would think that there would be a large selection of books that would have been available. And that, my dear reader is where the story takes a turn. Even though the above had a selection of books, the buyer of the books did not have a choice. You had to look for a book and be happy with whatever you find (and sometimes you do find great books too, like hardbound versions from the 60s !). If you were looking for a rare book or for a esoteric new book, most likely you would be out of luck. One would have no choice but to look for the book on some site like Amazon / B&N / sometimes on eBay. The cost of the book (taking into consideration the exchange rate and the foreign transaction fees) would most often be shadowed by the cost of the shipping of the book. And when you are buying a book which converts to close to INR 1500, every penny for the shipping does make a difference. With me so far?

So what is the democratization? It is the e-book reader ! It might be the Kindle (which by the way is definitely worth the buy – more on that later), the nook, the Sony reader or any other reader. These e-readers, with an upfront cost, have removed the shipping costs out of the equation. And, that creates a market for the vendor (like Amazon), for the publisher (NoStarch for e.g.,) and savings for the reader. And this makes books available within the reach of most of the book lovers. Of course, as someone who loves paper books, I know that the e-book readers will never replace the joy of having a paper book and the memories that the book holds (like what Partridge says). But, what the e-book reader creates is the ability for readers to read books that they would not treasure the way they would treasure paper books. And an e-book reader is useful in another case – technical books. Off late I have not seen a technical book which can’t be used on a weighing scale. In such a situation, the e-readers help lighten the load – both monetarily and the weight-wise.
Given the above, what about the price point of the existing e-book readers? Do you think that the costs of those are manageable? For example, the nook sold for $99 recently and the basic kindle sells for $139. Is that too much of a price to pay for reading books? Can an reader with support for e-ink be created within a price point of <$100 ? If such a reader were possible, the list of features I would like to see on it

  • Support for e-ink. B&W is good enough. Don’t need a colour one
  • Support for epub, with mobi as an extended support
  • Better rendering of PDF documents – generally PDFs are not displayed as well as the native formats. Though this is not a strict requirement
  • Connects via USB
  • wi-fi would be a good to have and a basic browser would be enough
  • I am not sure about DRM for the books though. DRM is important for the vendor. I don’t know enough of the existing formats to know how their support for DRM is. At some point, DRM will become important for any e-book reader. So, I toss in DRM too.

Are there any other features that you think are a requirement for an e-reader?