Interview with Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green
Cheryl Dorsey was honored as an Ashoka ChangemakeHER, Changemakers's inaugural celebration of the world's most influentual and inspiring women. Find her fellow honorees' voices here.
Cheryl Dorsey is a pioneer in the social entrepreneurship movement. She is the president of Echoing Green, the global nonprofit that unleashes next generation talent to solve the world's biggest problems.
Who are your favorite changemakers?
Dr. King. Nelson Mandela. Oprah Winfrey.
What are the qualities that made them successful?
Integrity, strength, and courage.
All three of these figures gave their lives to make the world a better place. They are extraordinary examples of leadership. The magic of leadership has to do with the way a leader makes the rest of us walk a little bit differently in the world. All three of these icons are amazing examples of how leadership led to serious normative shifts in terms of what we consider to be right and just.
What can the social entrepreneurship sector learn from those changemakers?
To achieve wide-scale social change we have to engage the world of politics – this is what Dr. King and Nelson Mandela did so well. You are never going to get to the level or scale of change that is necessary unless we engage the political realm. But so much of the social entrepreneur’s narrative is, “We do our work because the government can’t do it.” But by always linking social entrepreneurs to government dysfunction, we put an unnatural barrier between social entrepreneurs and government. Social entrepreneurs can be critical, we can be skeptical, but we must engage.
You have a background in medicine. What made you gravitate to the social entrepreneurship sector?
If I had to do it all over again I would not have become a physician. It was what my family wanted me to do. It was one of the few professional trajectories for young people, but it wasn’t my calling. When you go to school, most people are pre-med or pre-law. But what if you are pre-social change, where can you go?
What I found in social entrepreneurship was a real alignment between my skills and talent and what my heart was telling me. A lot of people struggle professionally because they aren’t in that same zone.
What advice would you have today for your 15-year-old self?
Listen to your gut. Our gut instinct is probably the finest form of data we have to make decisions. But most of us squash the information we get. You have to remember that you are your own fiercest advocate. The more disconnected you become from your gut, the harder it becomes to determine your direction. Have a little faith in yourself and your wisdom.
What brought you to Echoing Green?
Echoing Green really gave me my start down this road of changemaking. It was a transformative force in my life. Echoing Green was there for me at the beginning – at that critical stage when everyone else disputes your vision of the future. It’s an organization that will stand with the leaders of tomorrow, an important part of social change infrastructure.
What one thing do you look at when identifying social entrepreneurs?
I will always privilege the person and their leadership potential over their idea.
What challenges are particular to women in the social entrepreneurship field?
A big part of the successful journey of an entrepreneur is the ability to attract resources, particularly financial resources. At Echoing Green, we call that “resource magnetism.” Since a lot of that effort is based on relationships and access to networks, women are at a real disadvantage.
We’ve noticed that many women start initiatives, but aren’t always achieving the same scale as men in terms of growing their organizations. Why do you think this is?
I think we have to remember that small can be powerful and beautiful. Women don’t get caught in the trap of “mine is bigger than yours so it must be better.” Women understand community contexts and understand how innovations might not be able to scale up. We need to celebrate those kinds of approaches too – ones focused on maximizing impact and not just reach.
What problems do you have with the social entrepreneurship field?
Too much of the time, we conflate success with being a founder. But this is the wrong message. We’re sending the message that to be successful you have to start something – you have to be a founder. But the vast majority of us shouldn’t start anything. We really need to re-frame the conversation to say, you need to walk through the world with maximum purpose and impact. It’s not always about starting something new.
So what about people inside organizations? What advice do you have for social intrapreneurs?
I truly believe in the power of intrapreneurs. They are important actors as well, but my bias is that it is often easier to make significant change from the “outside-in” than the “inside-out.” I always worry for intrapreneurs because once an organization is at a particular stage, so much of the work of that organization becomes about maintaining and protecting its existence. And so you move away from your innovative origins and become more about self-preservation. And that’s where you lose the power of these organizations – and the people inside them. The bureaucracy begins to build. But there is hope. Social intrapreneurs that understand the innards of that organization really well can identify the levers of change. They can help change the organization from within and they need a little bit of freeing up to do so.
A question that Tolstoy often thought about was around knowing the right time to act. When do you know when the moment is ripe?
I trust social entrepreneurs to guide me. They know their issue inside and out. The know it, inhabit it, and live it like no one can. I will always defer to their wisdom. They understand the moment and when to move.
What is your superpower?
I am a really good cultural translator. I’m good at moving between various stakeholders, communities, and groups. When I was studying in Cambridge at Harvard Medical School, I used to cross the tracks to inner city Boston to work with disadvantaged communities. I had an easy ability to move back and forth between these two disparate communities and provide a bridge of common understanding.
What superpower would you want to have?
To help people really recognize their full potential. Most people walk through the world operating on a quarter of a tank. I’d really like people to understand their power – to unlock their full majesty and their potential.