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Lessons From A Redemptive Entrepreneur

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"Now that's a big idea!"

It was high praise from the former senior partner of a highly respected strategy consulting firm, a guy who deals in big ideas every day. I had just shared the concept behind one of my client's new ventures over lunch. While still in its early days, this company aims to change how $200 trillion gets managed every year. Yes, that's trillion with a T. Can you say b-i-g i-d-e-a?

But I heard a piece on NPR this summer about a group of Harvard MBA's who may have an even bigger one. They decided to swap a typical summer internship for a road trip to help entrepreneurs. Maybe it says something about us as a society that we're surprised that four bright, young people would break from the herd charging up the well-trodden path toward the top of the world to spend time working with ordinary people in middle America who are trying to make their business dreams a reality. Let's face it, the world those students live in solves for money, power, and status. Helping entrepreneurs figure out how to launch sustainable and socially responsible businesses isn't the most direct path to the top.
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But as impressive as those MBA students' choice was, I'm even more intrigued by the people they chose to help: an inner city hair salon, a designer of rugged women's work clothes, and a micro-brewery.

Take Sebastien Jackson, a young African American man in Detroit. His vision is to use a for-profit business - in this case, a hair salon - to drive cross-racial understanding in one of our toughest and most segregated cities. Now that's a big idea. Instead of fleeing his city, Jackson is choosing to put his efforts into transforming it. In his case, he used what was close to his hands and his background to get started. He had worked at a salon prior to starting The Social Club Grooming Company. Now he wanted to use it to crack the code on racial reconciliation.

That's what redemptive entrepreneurs do:

  • They see a bigger issue that needs to be changed. Jackson saw his city falling apart and knew that one major barrier to its rebuilding was the underlying racial tension. No one wants to move their families and businesses to a place that seems like it's on the verge of a riot.
  • They see a solution - or at least part of a solution. Jackson believes that people don't get along when they don't understand each other. He decided to try to create a place where people could casually learn about each other - to rub shoulders in ways that promote understanding without being forced. I'm guessing you already know that men get to know each other better when they're interacting casually instead of facing each other across tables eye to eye (ladies, you can send me your checks for that free marital advice anytime). Sitting in a barber chair and shooting the breeze is a perfect environment for guys to start to get to know each other.
  • They use what they know to do what they can. Sure, Jackson could have gone out and gotten a social work degree. Maybe he could have become a politician - and maybe he will in the future. But here's the fact: the guy knew hair. So he combined his vision for change with a solution that was natural for him.
  • They build organizations that will be viable for the long term. A noble idea without a sustainable model is unfortunately not much use. This is where the Harvard MBA's came in - using what they know (business, economics, finance) to do what they can (helping redemptive entrepreneurs create sustainable business models).

Maybe the example of the Harvard MBA's points out another mark of the redemptive entrepreneur. A redemptive entrepreneur sees herself as one piece of a tapestry of like-minded people who are determined to use their skills for the common good. She doesn't have to do it all. She just has to do her part and find others who are also doing their part. Put together, they create something useful, meaningful and even beautiful.

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