More than Manic

Story bubbles on world map
Source: Ashoka

Picture a Venn diagram. The left hand circle represents the personality of someone who is entrepreneurial. The right hand circle represents the personality of someone who is hypomanic. The overlap in the center—well, let’s just say it’s statistically significant.

So goes the analysis at the heart of Saturday's New York Times piece, Just Manic Enough. “A thin line,” the article’s author David Segal writes, “separates the temperament of a promising entrepreneur from a person who could use, as they say in psychiatry, a little help.” Translation? Entrepreneurs are kind of crazy.

That’s old news to Ashoka founder Bill Drayton, who first set out in search of a very particular kind of crazy person almost 30 years ago. He articulated what, exactly, he was looking with a phrase that could just as easily describe paranoid schizophrenics as social entrepreneurs: “Are they possessed, really possessed, by an idea?”

The parallel between Segal and Drayton’s conclusions perhaps settles an interesting question: yes, entrepreneurs, both business and social alike, are a very peculiar breed. But it also raises another one: what’s the difference between a business entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur? Is it simply a matter of mission—the former seeking a financial goal the latter seeking a social one? Or is there more to it than that?

Are business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs different types of people?

Picture another Venn diagram, where the right hand circle represents the business entrepreneurs profiled in Segal's article and the right hand circle represents the social entrepreneurs chronicled David Bornstein’s book How to Change the World. There’s overlap, of course, but there’s also plenty of difference. From Ford to Jobs, Segal’s business entrepreneurs show hints of megalomania, “grandiosity.” Social entrepreneurs on the other hand “rarely announce themselves when they walk in the door,” writes Bornstein. “Strong ethical fiber” doesn’t appear on the list of must-haves for successful business entrepreneurs, but it is a fundamental criterion that Ashoka Fellows must meet. (That’s not to say that business entrepreneurs are unethical. But ethical fiber is not a fundamental trait for a business entrepreneur in the same way it is for a social entrepreneur.)

The biggest difference between the two types of entrepreneurs is exemplified by the following comparison: While the business entrepreneur profiled in Segal’s article, though barely into his twenties, had already started, grown, and sold two businesses by the time he entered college, the social entrepreneurs that the Ashoka team has tracked down over the course of three decades have, more often than not, devoted their entire lives to a single project. Bornstein puts the matter simply: “Major social change…takes a very long time.” So, though gratification is just around the corner for the successful business entrepreneur, even the most successful social entrepreneur turns one corner only to discover another corner on the horizon. And, however crazy it may seem, the social entrepreneur is fully aware of that fact.

Click here to read Segal's NYTimes piece, Just Manic Enough.