DAVOS, Switzerland: With the American presidential campaign
in full swing, the obvious way to change the world might seem to be through
But growing numbers of young people are leaping into the fray and doing the
job themselves. These are the social entrepreneurs, the 21st-century answer to
the student protesters of the 1960s, and they are some of the most interesting
people here at the World Economic Forum (not only because they're half the age
of everyone else).
Andrew Klaber, a 26-year-old playing hooky from Harvard Business School to
come here (don't tell his professors!), is an example of the social
entrepreneur. He spent the summer after his sophomore year in college in
Thailand and was aghast to see teenage girls being forced into prostitution
after their parents had died of AIDS.
So he started Orphans Against AIDS (www.orphansagainstaids.org), which pays school-related
expenses for hundreds of children who have been orphaned or otherwise affected
by AIDS in poor countries. He and his friends volunteer their time and pay
administrative costs out of their own pockets so that every penny goes to the
Klaber was able to expand the nonprofit organization in Africa through
introductions made by Jennifer Staple, who was a year ahead of him when they
were in college. When she was a sophomore, Staple founded an organization in her
dorm room to collect old reading glasses in the United States and ship them to
poor countries. That group, Unite for Sight, has ballooned, and last year it
provided eye care to 200,000 people (www.uniteforsight.org).
In the '60s, perhaps the most remarkable Americans were the civil rights
workers and anti-war protesters who started movements that transformed the
country. In the 1980s, the most fascinating people were entrepreneurs like Steve
Jobs and Bill Gates, who started companies and ended up revolutionizing the way
we use technology.
Today the most remarkable young people are the social entrepreneurs, those
who see a problem in society and roll up their sleeves to address it in new
Bill Drayton, the chief executive of an organization called Ashoka that
supports social entrepreneurs, likes to say that such people neither hand out
fish nor teach people to fish; their aim is to revolutionize the fishing
industry. If that sounds insanely ambitious, it is. John Elkington and Pamela
Hartigan title their new book on social entrepreneurs "The Power of Unreasonable
Universities are now offering classes in social entrepreneurship, and there
are a growing number of role models. Wendy Kopp turned her thesis at Princeton
into Teach for America and has had far more impact on schools than the average
secretary of education.
One of the social entrepreneurs here is Soraya Salti, a 37-year-old Jordanian
woman who is trying to transform the Arab world by teaching entrepreneurship in
schools. Her organization, Injaz, is now training 100,000 Arab students each
year to find a market niche, construct a business plan and then launch and
nurture a business.
The program (www.injaz.org.jo) has spread to
12 Arab countries and is aiming to teach one million students a year. Salti
argues that entrepreneurs can stimulate the economy, give young people a purpose
and revitalize the Arab world. Girls in particular have flourished in the
program, which has had excellent reviews and is getting support from the U.S.
Agency for International Development. My hunch is that Salti will contribute
more to stability and peace in the Middle East than any number of tanks in Iraq,
UN resolutions or summit meetings.
"If you can capture the youth and change the way they think, then you can
change the future," she said.
Another young person on a mission is Ariel Zylbersztejn, a 27-year-old
Mexican who founded and runs a company called Cinepop, which projects movies
onto inflatable screens and shows them free in public parks. Zylbersztejn
realized that 90 percent of Mexicans can't afford to go to movies, so he started
his own business model: He sells sponsorships to companies to advertise to the
thousands of viewers who come to watch the free entertainment.
Zylbersztejn works with microcredit agencies and social welfare groups to
engage the families that come to his movies and help them start businesses or
try other strategies to overcome poverty. Cinepop is only three years old, but
already 250,000 people a year watch movies on his screens - and his goal is to
take the model to Brazil, India, China and other countries.
So as we follow the presidential campaign, let's not forget that the winner
isn't the only one who will shape the world. Only one person can become
president of the United States, but there's no limit to the number of social
entrepreneurs who can make this planet a better place.