Social entrepreneurship is all the rage these days. Millennials in particular seem to be attracted to the combination of being their own boss and having their careers mean something beyond making a buck selling products and services. But if that’s your goal, you’d be far better off cutting your teeth in the conventional business world first.
Of the countless causes out there, the only people who seem to be making a real difference on a large scale are those who were successful in business before pivoting their careers toward societal causes. Famous entrepreneurs like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar come to mind. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. There are three very good reasons why that's the case.
First, experienced business leaders understand what it takes to get a startup off the ground, raise capital, grow an organization and scale an enterprise. That’s hard enough to do in a free-market built around a profit model that’s been well-understood for eons. The non-profit world is not nearly as well-defined.
Second, successful founders don’t just drop out of the sky into comfy corner office chairs. They learn on the job and develop their expertise and network as they go. Usually their careers begin to take off at a certain inflection point when their capability and access to opportunity reach a certain critical mass.
Third, it’s hard to run a business without learning to sell. It comes with the territory. Sales skills are absolutely necessary in the not-for-profit world where you’re asking people to give up their time and money without hope of any material return on investment. It’s a very tough sell that requires major league tenacity.
Those who decide to become social entrepreneurs early on miss out on all that. That’s why those who achieve even some measure of success with a local project usually find themselves pigeonholed in a relatively small niche. They never reach their full potential or develop the wherewithal to take it from there.
Here's an interesting thought experiment to drive the point home.
Let’s say you’re Bobby Flay, a world-famous chef who has starred in lots of TV shows, owns a string of restaurants and has written plenty of cookbooks. If you suddenly get the urge to leverage your knowledge of food, business acumen, star power and wealth in the name of a cause, it’s not a slam-dunk, but I’m guessing you could pull it off.
After all, non-profits require the same sort of knowledge, skill-set, experience and capital as for-profit businesses. The only real difference is that their goal isn’t to make money.
Now, let’s back up a few decades to a time when you -- the young Flay -- were just starting out with little more than a knack for cooking. You wouldn’t graduate from culinary school and get enough experience under your belt to open your first restaurant for more than a decade. The books and TV fame would follow.
But what if none of that had happened. Instead, you decide early on to use your interest in food to try to help starving children. You can imagine how much harder it would be to pull something like that off at that stage, rather than a decade or two later after you’ve gained all the knowledge and experience, not to mention connections and notoriety, of today’s Bobby Flay.
It’s not at all clear how you would have risen to the top of your profession, as Flay did. Like it or not, the world of social causes simply doesn’t offer the same kinds of opportunities to excel in a craft as the business world does.
A lot of young people read about famous business leaders devoting time and wealth to social causes, and that inspires them to do the same. That’s fine, but those same entrepreneurs would tell you to be patient, learn the ropes and make a name for yourself in the business world first. You’ll have way more to give back and a far better chance of achieving an impact by following their example.