An interview with David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.
Bornstein shares his thoughts about why many big ideas are little known, how everyone has the ability to be a changemaker, and what stories have inspired him the most.
Changemakers: The news media has been slow to catch on to [social change through entrepreneurship]. For example, you note that most Americans recognize the name of Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, but only one in a thousand can identify Jim Grant despite the fact that he is listed in Encyclopedia Britannia as a man whose work has played a major role in saving 25 million children's lives.
David Bornstein: What is the image of the world that the average person gets? You could read the newspapers every day for 10 or 15 years or watch the nightly news and never have a clue that any of this is going on. But you would certainly think, "Well there are a lot of terrorists out there and a heck of a lot of crime and corruption."
So when you bring up stories of social entrepreneurs—people really succeeding in bringing positive change at scale—people often are a bit skeptical initially. But when they get over their skepticism, what follows is often excitement and intense curiosity, because the tremendous growth of social entrepreneurship—which is still fairly new—can cause you to challenge your view that the world is growing more dangerous, or more unjust, and is surely headed in the wrong direction.
Many people are unaware of the fact that there are millions of social entrepreneurs around the world who are building organizations, and that the leading edge of these entrepreneurs are genuinely causing system change.
At that point, some will stop and say something like, "You know, my friend Joe is doing this. I never thought of him as a social entrepreneur, but I guess he is one." Or: "It's funny. I've had this idea in the back of my mind for the last five years and I've always thought about it, but I've never thought I really could do it."
In some cases, they go further: "I have this idea. I've written up a proposal. I even have an Excel spreadsheet with a budget, and I have just been waiting for the right time in my life to go ahead with it." You find people are thinking along these lines but they don't know that there is this movement, like a great ship—the citizen sector—that they can hitch their boats to.
CM: Can anyone be a social entrepreneur?
DB: It can be very daunting to think of yourself as being a social entrepreneur if you compare yourself to the Bill Draytons and Muhammad Yunuses of the world. But we have to remember: these guys started very small. Most social entrepreneurs begin with a very simple, unplanned intervention—helping one street kid or one disabled child. Muhammad Yunus started with seven borrowers in a village. Bill Drayton started with two Ashoka fellows in India in 1982.
You have many different levels at which people can participate in this emerging sector. This is what is so wonderful—because this sector now need the talents of people from all different walks of life with many different temperaments and skills.
Just as not everybody wants to start a business, not everybody wants to start an organization. There are many people out there who love to support social entrepreneurs—they love helping to advocate for them, write about them (like me) or create art about them. I hope to be seeing more of that with television and documentary work, and perhaps even some painting of social entrepreneurs one day! And of course you have the much wider range of people who are skilled in computers, or administration, or communications, or any of the support services that these organizations need to be effective and grow.
CM: Are there stories that never made it into the book?
DB: I interviewed more than 100 people for this book, and there are just so many great stories that I didn't have a chance to include. One person who sticks in my mind is Agnes Gereb, whom I interviewed in Hungary. She is promoting the idea of natural child birthing in Hungary—making that a viable option for women in that society. It's not the sort of thing we may think of when we think of the great global challenges that we face: poverty, environmental problems, disease. But I thought that her work is very important. My wife had a natural childbirth, and I think that a society where that option is not available or known, or is even illegal, is not a fully open society just yet. I would have loved to have been able to include her work.
At the other end of the life spectrum, Maria De Lourdes Bráz is dealing with another problem that receives little She is working to help poor families in the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro so they don't have to send their aging parents to state institutions for the elderly. She founded her organization in the Cidade de Deus ("City of God") favela in Rio, where they made the movie of the same name. She went to the community and created an adult day care facility in the middle of the favela. She got a house, got people in the community to cook meals, give music lessons, and other things.
So, this is a story about one person who deals with the beginning of life and another one who deals with the end of it. In between, there are many, many other people who similarly are doing very moving work, but unfortunately I couldn't include them in the book. I hope that I'll be able to use these stories in other types of writing—in books or articles.
CM: You experienced so much as you prepared this book—were there moments that had an especially strong impact on you?
DB: The single most moving moment I had while writing the book happened while I was working on the story about Erzsébet Szekeres in Hungary, who is described in a chapter in the book. She has created organizations for multiply disabled people across Hungary.
To get a perspective on her work I went to visit a state-run institution outside Budapest. It's the kind of place where people look like the living dead. It's such a horrible place, people are always in their pajamas and they are untended. They walk around like zombies. These are people that have been living in an institution in some cases for decades.
I met a man who was literally kept in a cage. Another was wrapped like a mummy because he kept scratching himself. Another looked like a grasshopper—he was skin and bones. He lay on his bed, knees pulled up to his chest. He just kept vibrating. He was like a skeleton. He was never taken outside. Nobody gave him physical therapy. It conjured up images to me of horrible places where people have done tests on human beings.
Maybe 45 minutes later, I arrived at Erzsébet's center, which is just north of Budapest. I walked in and it was astonishing. It was a sunny day and she has a big atrium. The sun streamed in. I could see a golden wheat field outside.
Three disabled people walked straight by me wearing jeans and t-shirts. They were having an animated conversation. You could hear music from radio stations. I walked around and looked into the workshops and saw people busy at work. There were people eating lunch in the restaurant, which looks like a pub. As I was taking notes some guy bumped into me, rolling speakers into the disco.
It was so moving because I got a full sense of what a social entrepreneur can do. Create a new world. These people were no less disabled than the people in the state-run institution, but they were treated like human beings. You could understand that if this woman, Erzsébet Szekeres, had never been born, all those people would probably be languishing in institutions. It gave me a sense of the beauty that people can bring into the world.