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Social Entrepreneurship: How Millennials Can be the Next Greatest Generation

David Murray

Posted October 29, 2013

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“One student raised his hand, and discussed the difficulty of finding a job after graduation. ‘Good,’ I replied.”

An awkward silence fell over a crowd of young professionals as Deborah Dugan, CEO of (RED), recounted her unconventional response to an audience member. When she was in school, hardworking graduates could easily land the typical, well-paying job after graduation. But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Young people were not forced to innovate or create their own career by identifying untapped market opportunities. In other words, the rough economy so many of us have cursed could be a blessing in disguise.

Okay, for the thousands of you struggling to find a job after graduation, this seems a bit unforgiving. But Dugan’s theory brings up an important point. Consider our grandparents’ generation. They were born into the worst economy in American history. But they met unprecedented challenges head on, rejected the temptations of individualism, and brought the US into prosperity decades to come. In turn, they were etched in textbooks as the Greatest Generation.

Some, like Dugan, believe our generation can do the same. But we’re facing a new set of challenges that are faceless, dauntingly complex, and much more nuanced than waging war across battle lines. Modern problems, such as climate change or the unsustainable global food system, are the result of deeply entrenched market failures and will not be solved by public policy or charity alone.

And this is exactly why my generation is turning to social entrepreneurship. We want to wield the power of the private sector to yield positive change, while creating a living for ourselves in the process. We want to prove profit does not have to come at the expense of the planet.

That’s why I attended the Columbia Social Enterprise Conference last month, which was a forum to discuss just how Millennials can channel our entrepreneurial spirit and navigate global markets to drive positive change. Every year since 2001, Columbia Business School has hosted notable entrepreneurs, activists, and leaders to engage hundreds of young professionals on tackling critical issues through creative strategies and business models. Attendees weren’t simply lectured, but challenged to participate in discussions analyzing key barriers social enterprises face today.

For example, say you’ve designed a simple, inexpensive product that can provide hours of light to those who need it most, but haven’t been able to scale up sales to their full potential. That’s the challenge facing MPOWERD, the company behind Luci. Luci is a small, lightweight inflatable device that captures solar energy during the day and emits it at night.

Child Holding LuciFor the 1.3 billion people who lack electricity at night and rely on kerosene lamps or indoor fires, Luci  could improve — and even save —   countless lives. Yet MPOWERD isn’t a charity, it has a much larger goal of proving its unique product can help people and planet while turning a profit. The CEO put us in his shoes, and we broke out into groups and brainstormed ways MPOWERD could achieve its goal. I was amazed at the number of ideas my team came up with: from partnering with international charities or outdoor retailers, to creating “sister schools,” where American students would buy a Luci and learn about solar energy, and in turn fundraise to share the product with a school in the developing world. Ultimately, many of us found that the most powerful solutions were those that tapped a consumer’s desire to connect with a cause, and feel directly part of social change.

This sheds light on the biggest barrier to achieving social change in the 21st century: disconnection. In the Internet Age, our world is dominated by boundless communication and unprecedented economic interconnection, yet the most powerful messages are the most personal. How can we make a faceless, global problem like climate change personal?

Working with the Renewables Program at NRDC, I’ve come to understand how this larger sense of disconnection frustrates the clean energy industry. The luxury of constant electricity at our fingertips deters us from the questioning its origin or environmental impact. Innovative solar start-ups or energy management companies achieve so much for our environment and economic vitality — yet their positive influence on climate change is invisible. It’s thus up to creative social entrepreneurs in the clean energy industry to develop ways to connect the impact of their business to one of the greatest challenges of our time.

To win the war on climate change, my generation will require unprecedented levels of entrepreneurialism and innovation. History dares us to meet the challenge head on.

To see how clean energy innovation is spurring economic change across the country, and read the stories of modern energy entrepreneurs, visit

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Peter CrownfieldOct 30 2013 09:40 AM

It's good to see this emphasis on responsibility, but it begs a more fundamental question: Why organize these as for-profit businesses at all?

Employees at non-profit organizations also earn a living and the corporations aren't constrained by the legal mandate to maximize profits. The B corporation is a partial answer to this problem, but the fundamental question remains.

Why not organize these 'social entrepreneurships' as nonprofits or co-ops?

David MurrayNov 4 2013 05:20 PM

Thank you for your comments, Peter. As you mention, non-profit businesses and co-ops are absolutely critical to furthering social change. However, as for-profit entities provide returns to investors, they have greater leverage raising private capital. I think its important these companies demonstrate they can not only provide substantial returns to their shareholders, but can do so in a socially responsible manner.

My colleagues at NRDC's Center for Market Innovation focus on ways to direct capital for sustainable uses. You may be interested to read more about their work here:

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