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Women and social entrepreneurship: Redefining success
by Allyson Hewitt
on March 08, 2011

Allyson HewittHave you seen the V8 commercial where the person smacks themselves on their forehead with the realization that they “could have had a V8”? Well, in December 2007, SiG@MaRS, along with our partners at The Boston Consulting Group, Centre for Social Innovation and (what was then) Toronto City Summit Alliance, hosted the first of our now annual Social Entrepreneurship Summits. At the end of this first event, I was inundated by people who had been struck by the realization that, “Wow, I’m a social entrepreneur.”


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They were so grateful to learn that they were not alone in believing they could make money and make a difference.  That it is actually possible to live and work your values, and that there is even a term describing them and what they want to do. They were so pleased to realize they are part of an emerging and now burgeoning community of change makers using the tools of business to achieve a social purpose and ideally transform systems.

In the past three years we have made significant progress. Not only is the language of social entrepreneurship and social innovation much more commonplace, it is actually being picked up by mainstream audiences and business leaders who are using terms like “blended value” and “creating shared value.”

But are our social entrepreneurs, our leaders, prepared to take on these challenges? As Rosabeth Moss Kanter details in her blog in the Harvard Business Review on Innovations in Health Care, “Increasingly, leaders want not just to run an organization effectively, but to change the surrounding system as well. Not just improve hospital performance, but improve overall health. Not just fix troubled schools, but change patterns in communities that lead children to under-perform. Not just fix a problem, like a broken financial system, but change the culture.”

Our social entrepreneurs are charged with not only making money and impacting social change, they are our hope for actually transforming systems. These “challenging goals require leaders to operate in areas where the pathways aren't paved, and the moves aren't already choreographed. This calls for not just great leadership, but advanced leadership.”

Given the role of women as leaders in our sector, and in celebration of International Women’s Day, let’s cast our eyes back to the future, to the classic joke about old-time movie dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Fred Astaire was certainly a great leader. He had a goal. He could see where he was going. He was clearly in charge. He set direction. He led Ginger Rogers around the dance floor flawlessly. But Ginger Rogers was an advanced leader. She had to do everything Fred did, "but backwards and in high heels.”

International Women's Day

Are women uniquely positioned to take on these complex leadership challenges? I believe we are, but it won’t be easy. As a student of women’s studies in the 1980s, I really thought so many of our battles had been won, and there is no contesting the fact that significant progress has been made, but every now and then we are struck by reports from journalists, police officers or the judiciary condemning women who are victims of rape or sexual assault. We are reminded that we can’t take anything for granted, that our positions as leaders must continually be earned, that there are many who would ascribe to us a certain role in society - not necessarily a role we see for ourselves.  We need to name these and confront them. We need to take the power that will allow us to redefine success.

There are many tools and resources available to support social entrepreneurs but there is still a lot to do. We need to create an enabling and regulatory and legislative framework; we need to increase access to capital (from grants to loans and even equity); and we need to promote a world that understands sustainability as having embedded financial, social and environmental components.

There are many leaders in this space, from the CEO of MaRS, Dr. Ilse Treurnicht, who embraced the notion of social innovation and the value of integrating it into a larger innovation agenda; to the leadership of Tonya Surman and Margie Ziedler, co-founders of the Centre for Social Innovation; and to Anne Jamieson and the visionaries who worked with her to establish the Toronto Enterprise Fund. These women, along with the hundreds of women social entrepreneurs who share their passion for success with us at SiG@MaRS, lead us to feel optimistic about the future.

To quote one more insightful visionary, “We women may labour, but we ultimately deliver.” If passing along that sense of perseverance to the next generation who will write their own rules for success isn’t inspiring, then I don’t know what is. Happy International Women’s Day.

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Allyson Hewitt is the Director of SiG@MaRS, a program that supports social entrepreneurs and builds capacity for social innovation.



0 #1 Valerie Audet 2011-03-08 23:12
Good evening,

As a wife and mother of three boys, I often forget about the women in me.

My youngest son (eight) has Down syndrome, and this is where my advocacy is most needed and focused upon..so nice to hear my silent voice through yours.

Mother of three inclusively,
Valerie Audet

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