The Six Qualities of Successful Social Entrepreneurs - Retirement Net by Lin Schreiber

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The Six Qualities of Successful Social Entrepreneurs

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How you can have an encore career and make a difference in the world

So what exactly is a social entrepreneur? According to, social entrepreneurs are individuals who come up with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing problems. I like to think of them as, first, seeing the places in their community, country or on the planet where people are falling through the cracks and systems are not working, then, coming up with creative new systems and models that really make a difference in people’s lives.

Over the past month, I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing five extraordinary social entrepreneurs on my radio show—each a 2008 or 2009 Purpose Prize winner. The Purpose Prize is the brain child of Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based think tank, which awards ten prizes every year to social innovators over the age of 60.

Nasrine Gross grew up in Afghanistan at a time when girls still went to school, and her mother was a member of parliament. Today, 85% of the population is illiterate and women need their husband’s permission for just about anything. So, Nasrine created a literacy program for couples, and is changing the face of Afghanistan’s future through her organization, Kabultec Inc.

The devastating loss of Liz and Steve Alderman’s 25-year-old son, Peter, in the Twin Towers on 9/11 changed, as Steve says, the trajectory of their lives forever. Inspired by a Nightline story on the one billion people on the planet who have directly experienced torture, terrorism, or mass violence, Liz and Steve are honoring their son by becoming a force for global good. Today, the Peter C. Alderman Foundation trains indigenous mental health care professionals and builds mental health clinics in post-conflict countries around the world.

Growing up homeless with a “big mouth and a bad attitude,” Ann Higdon’s life was changed by one teacher’s confidence in her. When she realized that in the state of Ohio once you’ve dropped out of school you cannot return to get your diploma, Ann started Improved Solutions for Urban Systems (ISUS) which trains 16-22 year olds in construction, technology, manufacturing and health care with a combination of schooling, community service and hands-on training. The three charter schools ISUS runs are consistently ranked at the top of Ohio’s schools, and ISUS students are reviving entire neighborhoods.

Finally, Barbara Cervone was fed up with the way youth are portrayed in our culture, so she created What Kids Can Do, Inc. and gives voice to this underutilized resource. With a 40 year background in education, Barbara knew first-hand that kids didn’t want to be seen as part of the problem, they wanted to be a part of the solution. Through the use of audio, video, books, and the internet, What Kids Can Do is re-shaping communities and tapping this rich resource.

Are you wondering if you have what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur? Here are the qualities that all five social innovators have. They:

1. Are highly innovative. Well, of course, they are. But what’s interesting is that out-of-the-box, creative thinking is a must natural for them. They’re always searching for new ways of doing things, and when something fails they…

2. Are persistent. They keep trying until it works. And, they never let road blocks, obstacles, or naysayers deter them. It’s their can-do attitude that keeps them moving forward—no matter what.

3. Have found a cause that inspires them. It might seem obvious, but each is fully committed to and believes in what they’re doing. They may come at it from different places (Ann and Nasrine’s childhood experiences, Barbara’s career experience, and Liz and Steve’s tragic experience, but each is passionate about their cause.)

4. Have boundless energy. Barbara describes it best when she says that while many of her friends are slowing down at this stage, she has more energy than she’s ever had before, and often feels like a teenager. I’m not sure if the work creates the energy or the energy keeps the work going. Probably a bit of both!

5. Are exceptionally collaborative. In every case, these social innovators are masters of seeking out partnerships that support the work they’re doing, help spread the work, and make it sustainable.

6. Have a positive vision of the future. There’s not a gloomy Gus in this bunch. No matter how daunting the social problem (85% illiteracy in Afghanistan, one billion victims of mass violence) that some might call “hopeless,” they see the possibility and the potential for change and are hopeful and optimistic about the future.

These self-described “ordinary” people are doing the truly extraordinary in their Encore Careers. And, I’m not sure if this is a requirement to be a successful social entrepreneur, but Nasrine, Liz, Steve, Ann and Barbara are—without exception—five of the most gracious, humble, and delightful people I’ve ever had the honor to meet. Inspired?

Lin Schreiber, PCC, is a Retirement Revolutionary who loves helping self-reliant women reinvent themselves in the next stage of life, formerly known as “retirement.” Lin is featured on the PBS series Boomers: Redefining Life After Fifty, and is the author of The ABC’s of Retiring Retirement. A Professional Certified Coach, Certified Retirement Coach, and founder of Revolutionize Retirement, Lin combines her contagious enthusiasm, nonstop energy, and passion for her subject to create a fun, dynamic learning environment that energizes and inspires her audiences.

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