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Socially Responsible

Bay Area a hotbed for social entrepreneurs

The Real Problem Solvers cover photo: courtesy ruth shapiro

In 2012, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama visited Silicon Valley looking not for votes – everyone knows this is the bluest of blue areas – but for money. If they had spent more time on the ground here, in addition to cash they might have picked up some ideas for solving the country’s problems. The Bay Area excels at producing ideas and cash.

A growing number of people looking to improve the world in various ways are incorporating wisdom and resources from businesses. It’s a rapidly maturing field, and Ruth Shapiro is doing everything she can to get it the attention it deserves.

Shapiro divides her time between her home in Silicon Valley and jetting to Europe and Asia to consult with businesses. Wherever she goes, she sees problem solving carried out by social entrepreneurs. She cites Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of Ashoka (a nonprofit promoting social entrepreneurship), defining a social entrepreneur as a person who takes the passion and rigor of an entrepreneur and applies it to a social problem.

“The Bay Area is a hub for social entrepreneurship,” Shapiro said, “because people here are much more comfortable with risk. We embrace it and here – more so than in other places – we can get rewarded for doing so.”

The fertile local market for social-entrepreneurial ideas and talent has led to a thriving ecosystem of these organizations, such as San Francisco’s Room to Read (builder of schools and libraries in developing countries), Kiva.org (an online microloan service), and Black Girls Code (teacher of computer skills to minority girls).

Not surprisingly, many of these Bay Area organizations have a technology aspect to their work. Kiva.org, for example, is an online platform in which anyone can put up their money – as little as $25 – and loan it to specific causes, such as a farmer in Africa who needs to buy a cow. “Kiva is this interesting new model of taking the internet and microfinance and combining [them] together,” said Kiva.org President Premal Shah. “It’s not a donation, but it’s not exactly a commercial investment. It’s something in between. It’s a way for you to connect with someone across the planet to help alleviate poverty.”

Shapiro doesn’t just speak about socially responsible organizations; she started one herself. In 1997, she founded the Asia Business Council and served as its first executive director, relocating to Hong Kong in the process. The group, which she still advises, is a membership organization of CEOs in Asia committed to the sustainable economic development of the region.

“In many ways, the process I went through to start it – raising all the start-up capital, recruiting the members, putting together the content, getting legal status, etc. – is the same for anyone starting a new venture,” she remembers.
When she returned to the United States, she began speaking about social entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurs, only to find a wide range of definitions for those terms. She even found some pushback from people who did not consider her to be a social entrepreneur.

“To those in the social-entrepreneurial ecosystem, my work would not be considered for funding as I was not targeting a population in need of basic human services, like education or water,” she said. “I was targeting very successful CEOs, because I believed – and still do – that they then are in a position to be much better corporate citizens, which is what happened.”

Shapiro organized a series of public speeches and conversations in San Francisco with leading social entrepreneurs, such as Draper, Shah, and Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus. She distilled those speeches and conversations into a book published in November by Stanford University Press, The Real Problem Solvers: Social Entrepreneurs in America, which she will discuss Dec. 11 at The Commonwealth Club.

If you show up for her talk, you might find yourself surrounded by venture capitalists and social entrepreneurs from the peninsula.

“Venture philanthropy stems from the V.C. model,” she said. “Much of the funding comes from here, and the goal of disruptive change is often sought. There are also important attitudinal similarities – embracing risk, learning from failure, and refusing to accept the status quo.”

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