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Nelson Mandela Taught Us the True Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship

12/16/2013 06:34 pm ET | Updated Feb 15, 2014
  • Njideka U. Harry President and Chief Executive Officer, Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF), Nigeria; Schwab Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2013

In David Bornstein's, "How to Change the World, Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas," Nelson Mandela provided a forward, "... wonderfully hopeful and enlightening... the stories of these social entrepreneurs will inspire and encourage many people who seek to build a better world."

On December 5th, 2013, the world lost a giant social entrepreneur in Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. In this lifetime, there have been no other and may never be any other leaders like Nelson Mandela. Having commandeered the social transformation of a country, collapsing under the weight of apartheid, Mr. Mandela gained global acclaim for his unflinching courage and vision.

I had the humbling experience of traveling to South Africa a few times on business with Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF). Most recently while attending a regional meeting of the World Economic Forum in Cape Town, I traveled with my family - my husband and three daughters. My first visit in 2010 proved to be a culturally transcendent experience I wanted to share with my family. In addition to highlighting some historical facts to my daughters leading up to the trip, I read with them Kadir Nelson's, Biography in Pictures of Nelson Mandela. On the flight, I remember one of my five year old twin's closely holding the book, its cover artistically dawning with Mr. Mandela's face in anticipation of meeting him to share a hug. Three junior historians deplaned, reportedly inspired about the work of the first black President of South Africa.

We spent a day in Langa, one of the oldest townships in South Africa, and one of the areas designated for black Africans before the apartheid era. As we walked around the township learning from and listening to the people's stories, we felt a certain type of bond, my 9-year-old especially. Shortly after, she expressed her desire to return to Langa after college to establish a school and soup kitchen for orphaned children, helping to create jobs in the community. I hope Mr. Mandela knew how many social entrepreneurs, even potentially in children, he influenced by championing peace, forgiveness and racial unity for not just South Africa, but the world.

Social entrepreneurship is about applying practical and sustainable approaches to benefit society in general, especially the poor and marginalized. Was Mandela a social entrepreneur himself? Absolutely. Social entrepreneurs are "heroic troublemakers;" they disrupt the status quo and transform society, promoting systemic social change. In keeping with their attributes, Mandela had enormous, almost implausible goals, a deep sense of self-reflection, courage and resilience. In a Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela noted, "There is no passion to be found playing small -- in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living."

Social entrepreneurs have huge hearts, dreams, solutions and seek big change. He also describes his Robben Island cell as tiny. "I could walk from one side to the other in three steps," he stated. While seemingly dire at that time, this 27-year solitude provided him an opportunity to reflect on his life, in the silence of solitude and to build courage. "Mandela was often afraid during his time underground during the Rivonia trial that led to his imprisonment," Richard Stegel writes in Mandela's Way: Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage. As social entrepreneurs, we embark on ambitious initiatives that are questioned by ourselves and others. Courage is the ability to lead in the face of adversity while striking between idealism and reality.

The single most defining characteristic of the social entrepreneur is "perseverance against an array of obstacles."Changing the world is about making the choice to keep going, to keep pushing, to keep running. Mandela described "The greatest glory in living lies not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail". Social entrepreneurs pick themselves up after a series of many setbacks. They don't give up, don't rest until the change they have aspired to see is materialized.

Thank you, Madiba, for leaving a colossal legacy -- albeit personally sacrificial -- but one from which there is great reward for the masses of underserved. "What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is the difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead." And, this was true of you to your very last day.

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