From time to time, the Pope Center brings speakers to colleges in North Carolina to share ideas that are neglected on campus. Surprisingly, those ideas include aspects of entrepreneurship.
While business schools are fascinated by entrepreneurship these days, they don’t always deal with the social impact of entrepreneurship or the social environment that is required to nourish it.
In September, two entrepreneurs, Michael Strong and Magatte Wade, spoke at campuses in central North Carolina. Some of their advice was standard entrepreneurial wisdom: Learn from others (“Who are the five people you spend the most time with?”); develop effective writing and speaking skills; and find your purpose in life and share it.
But they are also “social entrepreneurs”—indeed, radical social entrepreneurs.
Michael Strong is CEO of a group with that name, Radical Social Entrepreneurs. Its goal is to improve society through entrepreneurial innovation—but “at a deeper level” than ever before. Strong is also the lead author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalism Can Solve All the World’s Problems. This optimistic book includes essays by Peruvian economic thinker Hernando de Soto, Grameen bank creator Muhammad Yunus, and Whole Foods owner John Mackey.
In some ways, Magatte Wade’s ambition as a social entrepreneur is even greater in scope than Strong’s. She wants to overturn old misconceptions of Africa. And she wants to do this not by shouting down political incorrectness and ignorance, as other reformers might—but by creating appealing luxury brands.
Wade and Strong, who are married, shared their vision with students and faculty at North Carolina State University, UNC-Chapel Hill, Fayetteville State University, and UNC Greensboro. The talks were made possible by the Charles Koch Foundation.
Let’s begin with Magatte Wade. She is a beautiful, animated Senegal-born woman who was educated in Europe, lives in the United States, and speaks four languages. She has created two companies with products based on Senegalese traditions. One (which she left in 2009) produced teas and fruit beverages. The second, her current project, is Tiossan, a luxury skin-care products company.
Wade is also a writer and popular speaker and was a TEDx lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill shortly before this series of talks. She was named a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Summit at Davos in 2011.
In her talks, she reminded the students that the most widespread images of Africa tend to be children who are sick and hungry. For years—even hundreds of years—media have been “sending messages that black means poverty, and Africa means wars, corruption, you name it,” she said.
Wade cited Martin Luther King Jr. and the U.S. civil rights movement as having taken a giant step by ending formal discrimination against blacks, but “deep down, the equality we want is not happening.”
Her generation faces the “last barriers of the heart and of the mind.” She wants to “start a healing process” by inviting people into her culture. To do so, she has found a powerful tool—consumer brands.
The top 1,000 global brands are dominated by American names, with a few Italian, French, and German competitors, said Wade—names like Coca-Cola, Google, Starbucks, Nike, Victoria’s Secret, etc. Nearly all the young people she talks to around the world want to come to the United States—they have learned about it through product brands.
Wade wants to use Tiossan to change the views about Africa not only across the globe, but in Africa as well. In Senegal, she says, affluent women buy cosmetic and skin-care products from Europe—even though they have ready access to unique materials (such as blackseed oil) that have been used in skin care for hundreds of years in Senegal.
Wade gave the students the company’s website, Tiossan.com; as she rode home from UNC Greensboro, she received an email message indicating that one of the listeners had bought her product. “That often happens,” she commented.
While Magatte is dramatic and her talk is highly personal, Michael Strong, is soft-spoken and focuses on the legal and cultural environment required for entrepreneurial success.
He has a gift for inspiring students and has been teaching much of his professional life. Although he has never taken an education course, he taught Socratic seminars, first, in Chicago public schools, and then in Alaska. When the school in Alaska closed, parents urged him to start a school, so he did. That’s when he became an entrepreneur, and he’s been running schools ever since.
Strong is developing an “entrepreneurial incubator” in Austin, Texas. High school students will learn programming, software, media, and video production, along with academic skills; graduates will make more money than typical college graduates, he says. (Strong is not very enthusiastic about elite educational institutions; he quit Harvard to study Great Books at St. John’s College.)
Strong emphasized that developing countries are “terrible places to do business.” Where they aren’t engulfed in corruption, they are mired in costly regulatory bureaucracies.
Most developing countries have legal systems based on French, Spanish, or Portuguese civil codes, composed of statutes that may be out of date or inappropriately applied. In contrast, the English common law system, which has evolved through judicial precedents, is flexible over time. Economic growth occurs more easily in countries with English common law.
Common-law countries have less rigid regulation. If someone in Senegal wants to start a business, he or she will have to pay $500 for a notary to sign legal papers; in contrast, notary services are usually free in the United States. The result? “You have to be upper middle class in Mexico or Africa to start a business.”
Strong observed that the World Bank has been trying to improve countries’ legal systems by training judges, a very slow process. In contrast, the city of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has created a 110-acre financial center that follows British common law. It offers to adjudicate cases from around the world. Now, the city has “more direct investment than all of sub-Saharan Africa.”
Strong is working with the government of Honduras to develop free-market economic zones in the country; a legal system like England’s will be part of them. His message is that entrepreneurship requires two things: the proper legal system, and cultural capital, a “start-up” culture that encourages new businesses.
Each in their own way, Strong and Wade are striving to explain that entrepreneurship is more than building a business. Innovation depends on an environment of freedom and where such an environment occurs, it offers the potential for positive change around the globe.