Social entrepreneurs are building the society we want to live in

Social entrepreneurs see the opportunities within problems

Hilde Schwab
Chairperson and Co-Founder, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, World Economic Forum Geneva
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

As I reflect on the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs who are shaping the Davos agenda under this year’s theme, Responsive and Responsible Leadership, I am reminded of the powerful words of Zamantungwa Khumalo, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper from South Africa.

“Responsive leadership for me means taking responsibility for my role in building the society I want to live in,” she wrote in her winning essay on the Annual Meeting 2017 theme. “Responsive leadership has no title, no age group, and has very little to do with whether or not you are an elected official or CEO of a company.”

Zamantungwa’s reflections on responsive leadership epitomise the characteristics of successful social entrepreneurs. Social entrepreneurs devote their talents and skills to creating a more just, inclusive, peaceful world. They never think, “Someone else will fix this.” They see the social problem – and just as importantly, they see the opportunity inside that problem – and then they set about fixing it.

Social entrepreneurs do not tolerate the unacceptable levels of social exclusion and unemployment that plague our societies today. They do not think in “us versus them” terms; rather, their interventions and services come from a place of empathy and respect for others’ identity, dignity, and rights to opportunity. And they are not beholden to conventional mindsets and business models as they push for tangible results and ever greater impact.

Take John Mighton as an example. A Canadian playwright with a Ph.D. in mathematics, he was awarded prestigious postdoctoral fellowships in knot theory and could have pursued a brilliant academic career. But he was dismayed that his love of math was not shared by most teachers, who feel intimidated to teach it, and by most students, who internalize that anxiety and believe they cannot learn it.

So John left his academic career to create a revolutionary math curriculum. In 2014, the Manhattan Charter School, which adopted the JUMP Math curriculum, saw the biggest gains in math scores across the entire city. It has already spread to several hundred thousand students in Canada as well as to Spain, Bulgaria and Ireland.

Another example of responsible leadership is Maysoun Odeh Gangat, one of four children raised by her widowed mother in the Palestinian Territories. Though she pursued her studies in the US and Europe and could have followed a successful career path in the West, she was determined to provide women in the Middle East with a voice and returned to Ramallah a decade ago. In 2009, Maysoun launched the first commercial women’s radio station and website in the Middle East, called Radio NISAA (Arabic for “her”).


NISAA is using media as a tool to debate taboos and challenge the traditional roles assigned to women. The radio station is managed by women and shows are produced and presented by female media professionals. A network of local female reporters documents women’s opinions and experiences across the country, including on controversial issues like domestic violence, and men’s opinions are actively solicited and aired to engage them in discussions about women’s rights.

Finally, let me cite David Risher. David was a senior executive at Microsoft and then oversaw Amazon’s marketing and retail operations. In 2010, he and Colin McElwee went to Ecuador, and witnessed orphanages and schools without access to useful reading material. As a direct result of that experience, later that year David and Colin co-founded Worldreader to bring e-readers and digital books to children in remote and under-served parts of the world.

Since 2010, Worldreader has provided 5 million children, students, and their families free access to its vast digital library of over 40,000 local and international e-books via mobile phones and e-readers. Personally moved by the humanitarian crisis in Syria, David and Colin are investing their time and effort to adapt Worldreader's Read to Kids programme, an early childhood development program supporting parents in becoming their children's first teachers, to help Syrian and Jordanian children keep up with their education.

I have tremendous admiration for all of the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneurs working tirelessly around the world. They are the architects of the societies we want to live in: societies that provide educational opportunities to all. Societies that are respectful of women’s rights. Societies that help our most vulnerable citizens succeed. For anyone who has any doubt about what responsive and responsible leadership looks like, look no further.

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