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Commentary: Young Kids Need to Learn About Social Entrepreneurship

May 19, 2011

(Lisa Novick is a co-founder of YesKidzCan! and has spent the past twenty years working in the philanthropic sector as a consultant, fundraiser, and volunteer.)

Yeskidzcan-logo Who among us hasn't looked at a child and wondered, "What will she be when she grows up?" And who hasn't also thought, "What can we do so our kids get the education, resources, and life experiences they need to discover their life's calling?" That's why we believe that as parents, educators, and community leaders, we are doing a disservice to our children by not exposing them at the elementary-school level to an important field -- social entrepreneurship.

At YesKidzCan, our definition of social entrepreneurship is the act of creating a venture or business that can help solve social problems or benefit society. For children, this can mean creating things to sell, providing a special service, or organizing an event to earn money for a cause, resulting in what many experts call "social value." Take Alex Scott. She was four years old and battling cancer when she started a lemonade stand to raise money for cancer research. After a year, she had raised $2,000. By the time she was eight, she had raised $1 million through the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation.

Let's be clear about a few things. First, many kids like Alex are motivated to pursue a social entrepreneurial activity because they've been touched by something serious or significant and are moved to take action. And whether or not our kids are natural change-makers, any kid would be hard-pressed to implement a venture of this kind without the support of an engaged and enthusiastic adult. We are not suggesting that we teach elementary school kids to run businesses on their own or learn to create a spreadsheet. We do believe, however, that we should impart the basic concepts of social entrepreneurship to kids at an early age; that we should teach them simple activities to reinforce these concepts; and that we should lay the groundwork for more substantial action as they enter middle school, high school, and beyond. In doing do, we will be helping our kids open their minds to all they can be.

What's the Value of Social Entrepreneurship?

Social entrepreneurial ventures have become an important part of today's economy. In the past, charitable organizations and government agencies focused their considerable resources and energies on the many challenges confronting us, including poverty, the environment, education, and health. Over time, however, it became clear that that wasn't enough and that more resources, ideas, and innovative approaches were needed to address the serious problems we face. Businesses emerged that were dedicated to finding solutions to today's problems — bringing with them a new generation of innovators and problems solvers comfortable with the social entrepreneurial model. Eventually, it became clear, as Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg wrote in the Spring 2007 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, that "social entrepreneurship is as vital to the progress of societies as entrepreneurship is to the progress of economies." Since then, the field of entrepreneurship has been incorporated into educational curriculum at all levels and has demonstrated numerous benefits for kids, including greater awareness of one's personal talents and skills, enhanced creativity and problem-solving skills, improved academics and attendance, and an improved grasp of the economy, finance, and the concept of social responsibility. If we place value on teaching elementary school kids about entrepreneurship, our hope is that social entrepreneurship is not too far behind.

Need for Action

Many reputable organizations such as Ashoka, EchoingGreen, and the Skoll Foundation are inspiring and supporting teens and young adults to be social entrepreneurs. Thanks to these organizations and others, the field of social entrepreneurship has expanded significantly. However, little attention is being given to teaching our nation's youngest entrepreneurial talent -- our future problem solvers. Rather than just talk about it, it's time to act.

That's why we recently launched the Social KidPreneuerz Awards Program. The goal of the program is to make $100 awards to kids in grades 3 through 5 and inspire them to undertake an entrepreneurial activity that benefits society. While modest in size, each award brings with it a substantial feeling of responsibility and ownership and requires a commitment to complete the task. Our intention is to plant the seeds of social entrepreneurship among younger generations, instilling in them a belief that they can shape their world. We are also developing learning tools for parents, teachers, and community/faith leaders to use with students, either independently or in conjunction with the award application process.

The Shape of Things to Come

Not every child is temperamentally suited to be a social entrepreneur. Not every child is suited to be a scientist, mathematician, or artist. But elementary school-age kids do have the natural curiosity, imagination, drive, and ability to come up with innovative ways to change the world for the better. By exposing our kids to a variety of disciplines, including social entrepreneurship, we are teaching them they have what it takes to "be the change." One well-known expert on social entrepreneurship, David Bornstein, puts it this way: Once an individual has experienced the power of social entrepreneurship, he or she will "never go back to being a passive actor in society."

Don't we owe it to our kids -- and the future -- to do more?

-- Lisa Novick

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