This post was originally produced for Forbes.
Years ago, while running a boutique investment banking firm that served mostly entrepreneurial clients, I came to appreciate that successful entrepreneurs come in all varieties but share one thing in common: optimism.
When I say “optimism,” I don’t mean the ordinary sort where one says the glass is half full. I’m talking about the sort of optimism that looks at a glass with perhaps a drop of water and concludes that the glass is effectively full.
As I’ve been writing about social entrepreneurship as a regular Forbes contributor for the past six years, I’ve come to appreciate this brand of entrepreneur for having an even deeper optimism. These are the folks who, while others are looking for the quick fix and the easy opportunity, stare death in the face and say I’m coming for you.
Personally, when I think of social entrepreneurship, I focus on three areas: poverty, disease and climate. My admiration is deepest for those who square up their shoulders and tackle one or more of these problems head-on.
Take, for example, Jake Harriman. While serving in the Marines, he began to recognize that poverty was contributing to the death toll in Iraq. He saw a man load his family in the car and attempt to run through the American line to escape the hell they were living. The American line held. Only the father survived.
Harriman went to Stanford following his second tour of duty where he earned a Bronze Star and began organizing an effort to end extreme poverty around the world. He launched Nuru International to create a model for lifting entire communities out of poverty. The organization works with impoverished people to create viable businesses and to then plow some of the profits back into the community using a hybrid for-profit/nonprofit approach.
Harriman didn’t get mired in the problem; he immersed himself in the solution.
Deep optimism is not limited to social entrepreneurs even if they epitomize it. Rotary International decided 33 years ago to end polio. [I am a member of Rotary and have been paid to speak at Rotary events.] Whether it was hubris or naivete, they planned to eradicate the disease within about twenty years. While the battle has not been won, the financial support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has helped. Seeing cases go from 350,000 per year in the mid-80s to just 22 cases in the world in 2017, eradication seems assured if global partners including the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the US Centers for Disease Control continue their support.
In the climate arena, social entrepreneurs are using wind and solar as weapons to slow the warming of the planet. Rayton Solar has developed a process using particle accelerators to slice the silicon for solar panels in a way that will reduce the manufacturing cost of a panel by 60%. In India, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy led a five-fold increase in power from solar in under three years, largely by engaging social entrepreneurs. Sighten is developing software to reduce the cost of installing solar.
The world’s biggest problems are proving to be the world’s biggest opportunities for those with the right kind of optimism.
They are the ones who see the empty glass as effectively full. It isn’t ignorance or delusion that causes them to think this way. Their attitude simply reflects the fact that they know where to get the water.
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