Social Entrepreneurship: A Useful Term?

The term ‘social entrepreneurship’ is increasingly common, although it was virtually unheard of 20 years ago. As an academic, I was one of those that wrote articles and spoke at conferences on the subject. Because there was (and is) little agreement on the definition of the term, I even coined one of the definitions (borrowing heavily from the work of Howard Stevenson): “The pursuit of an opportunity to benefit society beyond the tangible resources currently controlled.” Fast forward to a different time and a different place, I wonder now more than ever if the term is as useful as many of us once thought…

Usefulness over Time

Years ago, I commented that social entrepreneurship, as a concept, is too important and bold to be merely a subset of conventional entrepreneurship or business. My concern then was that the more we did to develop a field that represented a marginal ideal, the more we may prevent the value of the concept from being adopted as part of the mainstream ideology of business. As with the term Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), as soon as every organization makes the tenants of social responsibility part of their core values and explicit statements, the term losses its value as a differentiator, and it no longer makes sense to demarcate some companies as ‘Socially Responsible Businesses’. Clearly, society benefits more when CSR or social entrepreneurship become part of the assumptions, values and language of the mainstream business paradigm rather than remaining an idealistic notion subscribed to by a few within the larger paradigm.

Usefulness from this Place

Working in Rwanda, it is even less clear that social entrepreneurship is a useful term. In recent weeks, we have asked four CEO’s what had been the driving motivation to found their respective organizations. One said he did it to create jobs for those who had been poaching and killing Mountain Gorillas. Another said he did so because President Kagame asked him to alleviate poverty in the region he was born. Another established his company to improve the technological, social and economic status of his country after the war. The last CEO said his organization was established by the Rwandan Army because the army was expected to dedicate a portion of its resources to improving the development of Rwandans. It seems to me the term ‘social entrepreneur’ is more useful in the West, where identification of some in business that pursue merely selfish ambitions seems plausible. If such a person exists here in Rwanda, I’m not certain I have met them yet…

Onward and Upward,

Volleyball Saved His Life

Robert Bayigamba is certainly one of the best friends Karisimbi Partners could have here in Rwanda. Initially, we were drawn to him because of his warm personality and capacity to appreciate what it is we have moved here to do. Over time, he has become a personal friend to each of us as well as one of our chief advisers, clients and advocates. His biography is truly amazing, spanning key leadership positions in sports, politics and the private sector. Current duties include Chairman of the Private Sector Federation (something like the “chamber of commerce” representing the business community in Rwanda) and Managing Director of Manumetal (one of the oldest furniture manufacturers in the country). It was months into our partnership, however, that we discovered Robert narrowly escaped death during the genocide. Since this week is a national holiday commemorating the genocide that took place 16 years ago, it seems appropriate to share Robert’s story with you.

As Roberts puts it “Volleyball saved my life”. On April 7th, 1994, Robert’s name was on the list of people the Hutu-led government had disseminated to vigilante mobs for extermination. After a grenade blew a hole into the compound where he lived, Robert found himself face-to-face with the Interahamwe militia, preparing to plead for his life and the lives of his wife and children in the house. Since Robert’s father was a Hutu of some prominence, it was surprising that Robert’s name was on the list at all. Since Robert was once in the zone occupied by the Tutsi-led rebel movement (where he organized a volleyball match with a team from the rebel forces), he was likely tagged a sympathizer and supporter of the Tutsi-led rebel army. Under the circumstances, he had little hope in reasoning with his attackers. Amazingly, one of the mob pointed at Robert and asked, “Aren’t you the captain of the Rwandan national volleyball team?” Indeed, this had been Robert’s initial claim to fame, as he acknowledged in affirmation. Robert told the man “God has sent you here to help me”. His fame as a sportsman, combined with the Hutu lineage printed on his identity card, was enough to convince the mob there must have been some mistake in placing him on the list of targeted individuals, and he and the family were able to stay out of sight for the next few weeks.

As the pace and scope of the killing increased, Robert determined to take his family outside Kigali (the capital city) toward the southern border. As they approached the border, the only way to travel in safety was with military escort. A friend of Robert’s promised to arrange a meeting with a high-ranking officer so that Robert could make the request himself. When the official stepped into the hotel room, he turned out to be one of the most prominent referees in the national volleyball league, and someone Robert knew well. As such, Robert and his family were allowed to proceed into Burundi and safety, on April 19th, the day before the tragedy entered its darkest period in the southern region. To this day, Robert feels a debt to the sport that gave him so much and contributed to saving his life.

Sixteen years later, every single Rwandan family has a personal story of the tragedy and loss of the genocide…many more devastating than that which the Bayigamba family felt. Some are traumatized as killers, others from ‘survivor’s guilt’, some that fled are only now returning to make a new start… this week attempts to remember, comfort and unify. Please join us in remembering this tragedy and celebrating the enduring spirit of the Rwandan people.

Onward and Upward,