Last week I attended the inaugural Centre for Entrepreneurs lecture, where Eric Schmidt, past CEO, Chair and now advisor to Google gave an inspiring talk on the power of entrepreneurship, talent and innovation.
Schmidt spoke of how entrepreneurship has continually been proven to solve challenges humanity faces and drive progress – from Babbage and the computer, to the loom, to GPS and gene therapy.
He spoke of the need to be open as a nation, to embrace true diversity of talent, including through immigration and open borders. He talked of the need to strengthen democracy, including more regulation for ‘big tech’ around their use of data, and to have global ambition.
Yet here was one glaring omission in his uplifting, optimistic, evidence-based vision: our collective, and very real, failure to address poverty and worsening inequality as a society. This was made even more stark recently as UN poverty envoy Professor Philip Alston declared that over 1.5 million people in the UK alone are destitute and unable to afford basic essentials.
Power, wealth, and influence are held by a relatively small group in the UK. This concentration is getting worse not better. At the lecture the majority of guests were white men, all nodding happily and liberally at this humanistic story of entrepreneurial progress. And of course they all - in fact we all as I should include myself - stand to benefit.
Yet that’s not good enough for a country with the level of ingenuity, compassion, creativity, generosity and intelligence that we know we can exhibit.
Our civil society is complicit in this structural inequality. The Civil Society Futures report put together by Julia Unwin and her team recently published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport pointed to a failure to be true to the communities and citizens we serve. It provides a valuable four letter pledge – PACT: Power, Accountability, Connection, Trust.
I am hugely supportive of this report, and the shift it advocates towards purpose-driven leadership in the UK. And I believe it can go hand in hand with Eric Schmidt’s optimistic vision of the power of entrepreneurship to solve major human and environmental challenges.
This is the unique power of social entrepreneurship. It addresses market failure and social injustice – the equitable redistribution of power, wealth and influence. It thrives on entrepreneurial leadership, market- and community-based solutions, and profound user-designed innovation. It is the ultimate in human compassion and ingenuity.
But it was not mentioned once by Eric Schmidt, by his audience or the journalists covering his talk. And we will not realise its potential unless we as a society fundamentally rethink who an ‘entrepreneur’ is. It’s not all Oxbridge computer scientists. It can just as easily be a young community leader in Wolverhampton. We need to find these inspired folk whose solutions redress rather than contribute to inequality.
So what can we do to change this?
Firstly, at UnLtd we will keep on backing inspired social entrepreneurs to tackle our most pressing social challenges. It is our commitment to find, fund and support people from all parts of society, particularly backing the talent and ideas of those individuals and communities who are most marginalised by our society’s current systems. UnLtd’s awards, Thrive accelerators and funds, do this, as do many others’ – but we can always get better.
Secondly, we must engage with great people like Eric Schmidt and his peers. These remarkable business leaders have the potential to support and accelerate our efforts, and challenge us to think differently.
Thirdly, the broader entrepreneur community must challenge itself to consider how it is addressing poverty, other social challenges and climate change – including through making it easier to embed a purpose beyond in their budding ventures.
And finally as purpose-led organisations we must honour the PACT and be openly accountable on our performance against it. At UnLtd, we’re going to translate this into an action plan we will publish openly.
So thank you to Eric Schmidt, Philip Alston and Julia Unwin. And most of all to the vibrant, diverse community of brilliant social entrepreneurs. It is only through bringing together and harnessing this potent combination of learned and lived experience that we will progress towards a better and more just world.
I joined UnLtd as CEO in May 2016. I have over 20 years’ experience in the charity and social entrepreneurship sectors, most recently as Chief Executive of CW+, the charity for Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Prior to this I was a Partner at Leader’s Quest, developing a global community of purpose -driven leaders across private, public and social sectors. I was also a Trustee of the foundation of impact investor Bridges Ventures. Before this I grew INSEAD’s Executive MBA to be a top 5- ranked program and co-founded the business school’s Social Innovation Centre. I have an EMBA with distinction from INSEAD and studied Psychology and Philosophy at Oxford University.
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