The Social Entrepreneur
This is an interview I did with Dr Teresa Chahine back in 2016, when she had launched the first social entrepreneurship programme in the context of public health, at Harvard University. She also launched Alfanar Lebanon, the first venture philanthropy organization in her home country of Lebanon, providing tailored financing and critical management support to social enterprises serving marginalized populations through education and job creation for youth and women. Dr Chahine is now the inaugural Sheila and Ron ’92 B.A. Marcelo Lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship at Yale University, and author of Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship*, a twelve step framework for building impactful ventures in new and existing organizations. Connect with Dr Chahine on Twitter @teresachahine and on teresachahine.com.
“Public health as a field has existed for just over 100 years. At first, it was information that was lacking, and so we became research focused because that was the limiting factor. Now, action is the limiting factor. We still haven’t applied all the valuable information and insight that came out of a hundred years of research!”
From a doctorate in environmental health to teaching social entrepreneurship at Harvard. What spurred your interest in this field?
When I came to Harvard for my doctoral degree, I always thought I’d go back home and continue to do more of the same work that I was doing before. My first job was at the Ministry of Social Affairs working on a project with the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA). But after five years at Harvard I just couldn’t wrap my head around the way we’d been conducting our work. Millions of dollars, decades and valuable person-time were dedicated to projects and programs that were just not getting any tangible results. I started thinking of different ways I could contribute to society when I went back home. I had this burning restlessness to actually see the impact of my work! That’s when I realized that many others around the world felt the same way, and that there was even a word for it, and that this is what it means to be a social entrepreneur.
Some say that entrepreneurship and innovation are skills that you must have innately. How do you teach these skills to students?
I think that everyone has the potential to challenge the status quo. We’re trained to do things the way they’ve always been done before. But when you open up the possibilities by asking people “Why?” it’s incredible what can happen. Why are we doing things this way? Is this really the best way? What can be done differently? And most importantly, what can YOU do about it.
Each person has a responsibility to challenge the status quo. And each person can do it in their own way. You don’t have to start your own company or organization — if everybody started their own shop, we’d all be competing for resources and lessen our collective impact. Entrepreneurship and innovation is something you can do within your existing organization, by partnering or collaborating with other organizations, or by taking initiative as a citizen within your community. You can absolutely learn new skills that will make you a more effective entrepreneur and innovator. You can learn how to start by characterizing the challenge, gathering data on why it exists, what has been tried before, what has worked and what hasn’t. You can learn how to catalyse the exchange of knowledge from global experts in your field of interest, and local experts, the people who are most affected by this challenge, and who are unfortunately not usually seen as the experts. You can learn basic management and finance skills, which most people in public health don’t actually have any formal training in these days. And most importantly you can learn that it’s okay to try something that might fail, because we have to keep failing until we succeed. People are so afraid of failure that it’s paralyzing us, and we’re not implementing new solutions to tackling these social and environmental challenges.
Has your course helped develop any social entrepreneurs or innovators who have helped improve public health?
Absolutely. I won’t boast of results which take much longer than four years to produce (the length of time I’ve been teaching this course). But I’m honoured to serve on the board of Y-Labs, an incredible new organization developed by a former student during the year that she took my course, and whose team I mentored through a summer internship at the Harvard Innovation Lab (iLab) after the course ended. Another inspiring organization that was developed by a former student of mine is Du’Anyam, which won the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge two years ago. I’m always careful to caution people though that it’s not something to boast about when you form a new organization or win an award. You actually have to get results.
How does your book, Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship, help readers develop and implement social entrepreneurial knowledge and skills to tackle the challenges facing our world today?
It’s built like a “how to” guide that walks the reader through key steps in formulating and implementing an innovative, effective, and financially viable solution to a social challenge. I use the word social broadly to refer to the challenges facing our society today, which include environmental, health, education and other subject areas. The book contains examples and case studies of existing social ventures in different sectors, interviews with social entrepreneurs around the world, and tools and templates to actually help the reader go through his or her own idea and iterate it until its implementable. Most importantly, it tries to make the process fun, especially the aspects that many of us find boring or scary! These include the business side, legal side, funding, monitoring and evaluation, and others.
As Director of Alfanar Lebanon, a venture philanthropy organisation, why do you focus investments in social enterprises that improve children’s education and women’s economic empowerment in the Arab region?
These two sectors have been our historical focus because this is where you see the greatest social return on investment, due to the ripple effects which impact many people over time. However, we’re constantly testing out new sectors, and challenging ourselves to find opportunities to create measurable impact in other pressing problems, such as the environmental disasters we face today in Lebanon.
What’s your top advice for anyone seeking investment?
You need to show results. Ideas are a dime a dozen, and you’re not the only person with an inspiring story that this investor is talking to today. Try to keep your head down and just do the work. Then your work will speak for itself. Get results first, and then you can go out there and talk about it. Not the other way around!
What have been some of your success stories with Alfanar?
I launched Alfanar Lebanon four years ago, and it’s incredible to think that we created something with a truly tangible impact that didn’t exist before. Alfanar has been working in Egypt for a dozen years, and is literally the first venture philanthropy organization in the Arab world. In Lebanon we support (at the time of writing) five amazing organizations serving the most marginalized populations. In public schools where the pass rate in official government exams has been historically 25%, students served by one of our investments (MMKN, Arabic for Possible) have a 100% pass rate. This is simply due to their being tutored and mentored by volunteers from local universities, who are specializing in education. The volunteers, in turn, gain an appreciation for how education takes place in some of the most marginalized communities in Lebanon. This changes their own career path, with ripple effects to other schools and students down the line. Another one of our education investments, Ana Aqra’ (Arabic for I Can Read) is revolutionizing the way children learn in their primary education and pre-school years. They have been working in public schools in Lebanon for twenty years, and when the Syrian refugee crisis occurred they were ready. Without them, thousands of refugee children would still be out of school today. Ana Aqra’ worked with public schools to get these children back on the learning track. Some of them had been out of school for up to four years. In a few years, they will be teenagers. Imagine all the risks that these rapidly growing young people, and the communities they’ve been displaced to, would face if the basic human right of education was not achieved. I wish I could tell you about all our investments, but I know you have limited space. Please visit our website at www.alfanar.org to learn more. We also have a very fun two minute video posted on Kickstarter which over-achieved its fundraising goal! The video is still up and you can watch it, just google “Lebanon refugee food truck” and you will find it.
Given your experience with the Gulf Sustainable Urbanism research study, how do you feel social entrepreneurship and innovation have helped sustainable and healthy development of cities around the Persian Gulf region?
We’re not there yet. So far the efforts have been constrained to a handful of initiatives by governments and foundations. Some of these are pretty impressive, but the tipping point will only be reached when private players start taking initiative. This is already happening, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries are investing heavily in creating innovation ecosystems, so I hope we’ll start seeing some exciting results soon.
Do you have any advice for anyone considering a similar career pathway?
Yes — Just get started! Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. Don’t sit around thinking in the ivory tower. I spent many years doing that when I should have been taking action. So don’t be afraid to just dive in, this is the only way you’ll truly learn what you’re capable of.
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