Jean Case / Geoff Livingston

August 26, 2015; Devex

A Devex reporter named Adva Saldinger writes about “what the social entrepreneurship revolution needs now.” That word, “revolution,” may seem hyperbolic, but the first source for Saldinger’s piece is Jean Case, co-founder with her husband Steve Case of the Case Foundation and someone fond of the concept of revolution. (Besides the foundation, Steve Case is also the chairman and CEO of Revolution LLC and the founder of Revolution Growth, Case’s vehicles for investing in social enterprises—that is, “people and ideas that can change the world”—such as Groupon, LivingSocial, Revolution Foods, and many more.)

In previous commentary, Case has bemoaned that the corporate sector doesn’t have a seat at the table of solving social problems. Some might have thought that corporations sort of owned the table and the seats together, but in this Devex piece, Case modifies her seat metaphor:

Honestly, the missing seat that doesn’t have an oar to row as we’re trying to get to the finish line is the entrepreneurial spirit…entrepreneurs coming in and bringing their bright innovative ideas about how we solve problems. That can really be transformational and I’ve already seen it happening…too much change has been led out of conference rooms with fluorescent lights, not on [the] front lines of the problem, so I believe it’s game changing.

One wonders whether Case is fully aware of the NGOs on the “front lines” in developing countries (which is the focus of the Devex piece) as transformational players, or whether she ranks for-profit entrepreneurs somewhat higher than nonprofit aid providers. In any case, Saldinger carries Case’s enthusiasm to talk about the “growing cadre of entrepreneurs stretched across developing countries who are experimenting and innovating with new products, services and systems that can tackle agribusiness, access to energy, health care, education and more” and “donor agencies [that] are exploring how they can support entrepreneurs and strengthen the ecosystem…and the small group of intermediaries…linking and supporting promising businesses with capital.”

Among the elements of the social entrepreneurship revolution that Saldinger cites are these:

  • Jim Sorenson of the Sorenson Impact Foundation, contending that “social enterprises have the potential to be a much more efficient vehicle for philanthropy”
  • The plan of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to invest $10 million in its Partnering to Accelerate Entrepreneurship (PACE) program and the commitments of the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to “foster…entrepreneurship and incentivize…local banks to lend to small and midsize enterprises” (including OPIC’s Portfolios for Impact program) to “support smaller, earlier-stage companies that it wouldn’t normally support because the portfolio approach helps manage the risk.”
  • ChaseBank Kenya making a $600 million commitment to fund small and midsize enterprises, “especially those run by women and young people,” according to Saldinger
  • Entrepreneurship training and talent development programs such as Nairobi-based Open Capital Advisors’ “internal training program to help build the skills of recent university graduates and equip them with the critical thinking and business skills they may not have learned in the classroom”

Saldinger writes, “This may well be a critical moment. U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya during the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in July has helped shine a bigger spotlight on entrepreneurship’s potential to tackle global challenges.” Despite the breathless promotional efforts of promoters such as Case, the relevance of social entrepreneurs in the developing world shouldn’t be overlooked. There is much creative potential to be gained from unleashing the pent-up entrepreneurial energies in the developing world, but Case and other self-described “entrepreneurship evangelists” shouldn’t dismiss the day-to-day entrepreneurship of humanitarian NGOs on the front lines in the toughest environments around the world—and in settings no less fluorescent-lit than foundations like the Case Foundation or investors like Revolution LLP in Washington, D.C.—Rick Cohen