It Started as a Chat Between Friends…..

Two years ago, Dan and I took a grandparent trip to Paris and Normandy organized by Road Scholar. Aside from the pleasure of experiencing the world through 14-year old eyes, I became curious about the origins of Road Scholar, a non-profit organization committed to “knowledge seekers and explorers, united in the belief that lifelong learning is a vital part of overall well being..” Clicking on the Our Story tab in their website reveals that it started with a random conversation when two people at the University of New Hampshire were musing about the Scandinavian folketshusen that provide community-based adult learning and the value-for-money of youth hostels. Although it has evolved from its bare bones, learning-focused approach to travel for older people, it is still a non-profit that incorporates scholarships for those whose finances don’t accommodate much travel. 

This got me thinking about social entrepreneurs, or people who come up with new ideas whose purpose is making a difference rather than making money.

Last year I had the chance to catch up with my old friend Jan Hively, as she reappeared in Minnesota after giving a workshop at the Saging International Conference.  We were at a reception in a restaurant where I knew almost no one, although I felt as if I ought to know almost everyone because they were all roughly my age, long-time residents of the Twin Cities, and were in education or the helping professions.  Hmm…. Is this more evidence that my life is littered with missed opportunities for networking with interesting people?  Almost everyone that I talked to (once I managed to scrape myself out of my modest introversion) were (1) semi-retired or retired from a first career and (2) starting something new – often with others in the room – where doing good rather than making money was the goal.  In other words, I was in a crowd of what I could only call social entrepreneurs.

When you google social entrepreneur, however, you get a different view….the first links are degree programs in business schools and lists of successful social entrepreneurs who are also making money.  Now I have nothing against making money while doing good, but when you click on Forbes articles, you get a prominent definition that adds something new:  someone who uses business skills to solve social problems.  Those were not the people I met, few of whom had a background in business or were particularly interested in commodifying social good. 

It was not hard to find nuance when I probed my Google search more deeply.  The deep thinkers at Stanford University have come up with the insight that entrepreneurship “connotes a special, innate ability to sense and act on opportunity, combining out-of-the-box thinking with a unique brand of determination to create or bring about something new to the world.”   They go on, noting that entrepreneurs attempt to ““shift economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.”  What comes to mind are, of course, microloans to women starting small businesses in developing countries (which have proven remarkably effective in promoting gender equity)l  or the Global Soap Project that recycles semi-used bars of hotel soap to improve health in underdeveloped areas.

But what are economic resources?  Like most people, my first thought goes to money.  Then I quickly channeled Jan Hively again…

I have known Jan, an exuberant role model for successful aging, since the 1990s, when we worked together on programming and outreach for the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. At that time, Jan, who was in her late-60s, was completing a doctorate looking at the contribution of older people to the well-being of rural communities.  Her work, which demonstrated that the unreimbursed labor of older people was critical to maintaining villages and small towns, whether as volunteers in school or at the library or babysitting for grandchildren so that their parents could hold down several jobs.  Jan drew on her work to create a Minnesota Vital Aging Network – which is now an international movement dedicated to grassroots engagement of older people in their communities.  Almost as if she were addicted to staring new initiatives, Jan went on to found SHIFT! , (an organization that provides support to boomers who are seeking employment, looking at retirement, or finding community), the Pass It On network, which is focused on peer learning for older people, and the Life Planning Network, which links professionals who support vital aging and provides professional learning opportunities to them.

Each of these organizations is non-profit, most operating on volunteers; none seem to genuinely meet Stanford’s definition because there is no significant monetary financial “yield”.  They are grassroots, locally organized and maintained, and are committed to growing interpersonal community as well as “doing good” and measurable economic value.  They are distinct from the business skills driven model and “yield” because they are, at their core, part of a challenge to redefine aging from inevitable but increasing diminishment (the current dominant and ageist perspective).  She, and other social entrepreneur “of a certain age” focus on how shared wisdom promotes a common good. 

Not everyone can be an older social entrepreneur with global impact (like Jan) but everyone can find a way to contribute to grassroots social cohesion. The premise – than small local actions can lead to large consequences – is particularly relevant for people who have more time than money.  People like me. Who knows how many new initiatives began at that reception, where everyone these was drawn to the vision of being part of that entrepreneurial social movement?