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[Review] 'The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur'

December 04, 2017

Social entrepreneur. A once-niche label for a great many people who toiled as environmentalists, civil rights activists, and suffrage fighters before any of those was a "cool" thing to be. It's also the focus of The Unfin sh d Social Entrepreneur — as the book's cover cleverly renders it — by Jonathan C. Lewis, a life-long social justice activist and accomplished social entrepreneur who has founded two socially focused enterprises, MCE Social Capital and Opportunity Collaboration; co-founded another, Copia Global; and currently serves as a trustee for the Swift Foundation, which was founded by UPS heir John Swift in 1992 with a mission to enhance the well-being of people and the environment.

Book_unfinished_social_entrepreneurIntended as a guide for current and would-be social entrepreneurs, the book outlines twenty-one themes that Lewis believes are essential values for anyone thinking about jumping into, or currently working in, the social entrepreneurship space. In short (five to ten page) chapters, Lewis uses each theme as a lens through which to explore the mindset required to be truly successful in the world of social justice, whether it's founding your own social enterprise or joining someone else's cause.

He begins with a chapter on "Justice," describing how he dropped out of college to work as a legislative aide for Nicholas C. Petris, a California state senator representing the 11th district (consisting of portions of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Joaquin, and Santa Clara counties) from 1966 to 1976 and the 9th district (encompassing most of the East Bay area) from 1976 until he was termed out in 1996. Petris's "clear sense of right and wrong; his bold embrace of new and controversial ideas; his courageous use of power; his principled instinct to fight alongside those without privilege or advantage" are, writes Lewis, "the very soul of the social entrepreneur." Lewis then weaves his personal story through chapters titled "Starting," "Passion," "Rescued," "Connection," "Failure," and "Misgivings," walking readers through the twists and turns of his journey, with each chapter highlighting a lesson learned and/or core value to be absorbed and put into practice by would-be social entrepreneurs among his readers. Taken together, they are values that — if we remain cognizant of them in our day-to-day lives, writes Lewis — will help us be better, more compassionate, and empathetic, both as human beings and as professionals.

For example, in the chapter on "Listenership," Lewis shares a moment in which he learned the value of listening "authentically," of paying attention to both verbal and non-verbal cues, and of pushing our understanding beyond the limitations of our individual frames of reference. "Listenership means hearing others: the Others who have come before us, the Others who walk alongside us, the Others who are marginalized," he writes. "Listenership is social entrepreneurship....Social entrepreneurship valorizes the listening skill because it's so fundamental, so vital, to achieving social impact." 

Lewis is not embarrassed to acknowledge the limitations of his perspective, writing early in the book: "I'm…in my 68th year. I am a Caucasian male born in the United States, the only child of two working-class parents married during the Depression. Having no other choice than to be me, the book is framed (and limited) by my personal experience, and my particular perspective as an American social entrepreneur." At the same time, he notes that "the skin color your parents bequeathed to you; the streets you've walked; what you know about surviving life's grisly parts...whatever makes you angry enough to take action...are the fixed attributes that make you distinctive and in-demand for social justice work." 

As aware as he is of the "narrowness" of his own perspective, Lewis doesn't shy away from tough conversations. Using inclusive language while naming the problem explicitly and challenging problematic narratives is in the DNA of social entrepreneurs. In the chapter on "Power," for example, he suggests that a social entrepreneur can't do "social justice work without debunking, exposing, challenging, decrying the institutional rigidities that impede social progress." And throughout the book, he challenges readers to take a stand, that being the only way to achieve progress toward a more equitable society.

It's clear from his references that Lewis has been inspired over the years by a wide array of books and writers. He references Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule and Gladwell's David and Goliath, as well as Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. There is, as well, an informality and human quality to the book that I found appealing. Some of the jokes miss their mark, and the language, as approachable as it is, can be clichéd. But this is how I imagine Lewis would sound if we were having a conversation.

For millennials eager to find a purpose in life and engage in meaningful work, The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur is a great starter read that offers lots of food for thought It also presents a useful framework for how social entrepreneurs should think of themselves, their communities, and their work. "Social entrepreneurs are aggrieved," Lewis writes, "and those grievances, collectively and individually, identify and bind us as a tribe." If you are outraged by the many injustices of the world and are ready to start a career in the social entrepreneurship space, this is the book for you.

Laura K. Wise is a regional event specialist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and a journalist who writes about social justice issues and impact. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.


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