The “Surprise” Social Entrepreneur: Laura Callanan of McKinsey & Co

This post was written in March 2012 by second year Duke MBA and CASE Fellow Beth Bafford.  Beth reflects on a recent visit from Laura Callanan, CASE Advisory Council member and keynote at this year’s Sustainable Business and Social Impact conference.  Laura works with the Social Sector Office at McKinsey & Co.

We had the immense pleasure of hosting Laura Callanan as our closing keynote speaker for the 2012 Sustainable Business and Social Impact Conference [see summary post on the SBSI conference here].

Laura’s speech, entitled “The Surprise Social Entrepreneur,” wrapped up the day by challenging the audience to question their underlying assumptions when they define social innovation.  Laura accomplished this by walking through the academic definition of social entrepreneurship written by our very own J. Gregory Dees.  In “The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship,” published by Greg in 2001, he laid out the five key characteristics of a social innovator.  They must be:

  1. Socially driven with a defined mission
  2. Growth-focused to strive for large-scale impact
  3. Innovative, with a continuous process of adaptation and learning
  4. Resourceful, or able to make an impact with limited funding and/or resources
  5. Accountable to the constituencies they aim to serve

With this definition in mind, Laura walked through a scenario of an entrepreneur and venture that hit all of these criteria.  But when it came time to reveal the person behind the curtain, we were all surprised.  It was not your typical social entrepreneur who was attacking poverty, financial inclusion, or global health – it was James Houghton, founder of the Signature Theater in New York.  Houghton has a mission to provide everyone with access to the arts – through a $25 ticket to all of his performances – which he accomplished successfully over the past decade.

But is this a social good?  Naturally, this question was posed in the discussion session of Laura’s speech.

After reflecting on this message – and Laura’s challenge – I realized that yes, this is a social innovation and social good.  As I see it, social entrepreneurship and innovation come from the intersection of one’s personal passion, competency, and dedication. It is this passion – backed up by a good idea and hard work – that should drive innovation and action, not an unwritten obligation to heal the world’s greatest need (that the individual may or may not care about or have the tools to solve).

In this case, Houghton is passionate about broader access to the arts and has the background, training, and experience to make that mission a reality through his work.  He would be much less effective (if effective at all) at providing access to bed nets or clean water, so why would we force him into that mold?

This is a similar message, although delivered through a very different story, to the one we heard from Antony Bugg-Levine in the fall (that I wrote about here).  Both have taught me that the greatest way to make an impact is by finding a way to marry your passions and your work. If you can find that sweet spot, your success as a social entrepreneur will not be surprising.

Interested to learn more?  Watch Laura’s entire keynote address below: