True, sustained success does not happen overnight. Nor does it happen on the basis of raw talent or one great idea. It is achieved through the commitment and culmination of endless hours of getting to know, internalizing and applying the nuanced depths of an established industry or craft—an idea highlighted by the “10,000 Hours Rule” proposed in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.
We know this to be true for the tried and tested professions which carry with them the weight and authority of centuries of wisdom and perfecting—think doctors, lawyers, novelists, actors, composers, architects, etc. Certainly success, broadly defined as the mastery of a certain craft, can also be understood and applied to the relatively new field of social entrepreneurship.
Muhammad Yunus, a pioneer of social enterprise, serves as a powerful example of what can be achieved through singular focus and dedication.
It is unlikely that the 15-year-old Yunus, who visited North America on a Boy Scout trip a half century ago, ever imagined returning 57 years later to receive the United States Congressional Gold Medal. Yet his mastery of certain changemaking skills over his lifetime, and the resulting influence he’s had on the way the world does business, may help us to understand the field of social entrepreneurship less as a fleeting, generation-specific phenomenon, and more as an arc in the global story of social change.
Values are important. Enter, empathy: Perhaps the most important of the universal qualities of a social entrepreneur is the ability to experience empathy. Empathy is the capacity to understand the feelings and perspectives of others, and to use that understanding to guide one’s actions. It’s something that is cultivated, though sometimes apparent, from an early age. As this concept is not black and white, but best understood as a spectrum, those who are better in tune with their emotional intelligence are better social entrepreneurs. Yunus not only joined the Boy Scouts to be different, but his excellence within a community that places a strong emphasis on positive values—such as compassion, citizenship, respect, and responsibility—earned him a trip to the World Jamboree in Canada. It was through this trip that he “found out that human nature was similar in every country.”
Don’t be afraid to think differently, or to fail: Another defining character trait of Muhammad Yunus, which also seems to be a universal quality among successful social entrepreneurs, is the willingness to forgo traditional societal acceptance (be it job security or following cultural norms). When Yunus returned to his home country of Bangladesh from the life-changing Boy Scout trip that took him around the world, he made a conscious choice to pursue an arts program instead of a science program, much to the bewilderment of his advisors and peers. In that particular time and place, students as bright as Yunus were expected to choose professions in medicine or engineering. Yunus’ willingness to take up hobbies such as writing and cartoon work, and even to partake in a drama production as an “elderly, mad scientist,” may have sharpened his leadership skills.
In a recent New York Times interview, Yunus states that despite having being unsure if his work would make him successful or not, he was never afraid of failure. “I jumped at what I felt was right,” he said. “And the whole world was telling me that it won’t work. It’s a utopian idea; it won’t survive long. But I didn’t listen to them. I listened to myself. That I think is very important. And I stayed on my course.”
Seek a deep understanding of context: Another trait common in social entrepreneurs, and evident in Yunus’ work, is a deep understanding of and association with a particular place or population. Yunus spent his early childhood in the village of one of the poorest nations in the world, but remained loyal in his concern for Bangladeshi people even as his scholarly success took him beyond his country’s borders. For example, during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1972, Yunus founded a citizen’s committee and ran the Bangladesh Information Center, with other Bangladeshis in the United States, to raise support for liberation. And from his home in Nashville between 1969 and 1972, when he was an assistant professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University, Yunus supported advocacy by publishing the Bangladesh Newsletter.
Focus on change that impacts multiple parts of a system: Just as a film director brings together various parts of a film and a composer ties together various parts of a musical production, a social entrepreneur artfully connects different actors in society. This idea brings us to Yunus’ most noted work—the development of the concepts of microcredit and microfinance. Yunus’ desire to alleviate poverty is on a structural level; he has said many times that the cause of poverty is not the poor, but the flawed or broken systems in our society. In Yunus’ own words, “Poverty is not created by poor people, it is created by failure of institutions.” In 1976, during visits to the poorest households in the village of Jobra near Chittagong University, Yunus discovered that very small loans could make disproportionate differences to a poor person. With much persistence, Yunus convinced local banks to make loans to underserved populations. His project ultimately became the Grameen Bank, which has gone on to do development work in areas such agriculture and communications.
Include others in your vision to build towards true social transformation (framework change): Perhaps this is an obvious point, but what makes Yunus a truly exceptional social entrepreneur is that he is a true leader—a master craftsman whose work shifts mindsets about the global fight against poverty. Not only has he carved out a path for social business, he has reached a level where he is able to offer guidance to those hoping to follow in his footsteps. He is able to translate the importance of the field across multiple industries. He is able to contextualize the realities of the present and visualize the future.
Muhammad Yunus, an Ashoka Global Academy member, received the Congressional Gold Medal from U.S. House and Senate leaders in a ceremony in April 2013.
This post was originally posted on Forbes.