10/04/2011 03:55 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2011

Great Soul Gandhi: Activist or Entrepreneur

Sunday was Gandhi Jayanti, the 142nd anniversary of the birth of the man India refers to as Bapu -- father of the nation. Gandhi's leadership of a social movement grounded in the principles of non-violence, truth, and justice helped propel the world's largest democracy, India, to her independence in 1947. His birthday is a national holiday in India and is celebrated globally as the day of non-violence. He would probably wince at the irony of setting aside one day in honour of non-violence, while the other 364 exponentially witness increases in the use of force and defense expenditures.

I've been thinking a lot about the Mahatma lately, and not just because I am looking forward to reading the new biography by Joseph Lelyveld. After years of investing in grassroots social change at the Global Fund for Women , I am now developing a program at Stanford University that will bring to campus the vision, energy and passion of leaders who drive social transformation. Leaders like Patricia Guererro, a lawyer who built a city for displaced women in Colombia and works to bring peace there; Florence, a young woman in Zimbabwe and her teacher Betty Makoni who helped found the Girl Child network more than 13 years ago when she was an adolescent suffering sexual abuse in the school systems there; Hameeda Sikander, who organizes home-based workers in the slums of Pakistan to mobilize for better wages, safer working conditions, and access to education; Mona Adeif and Gigi Ibrahim, young women leaders in the protests that brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. Asking myself, "What would Gandhi do?" has helped me to sharpen the design, criteria and outcomes of the Program on Social Entrepreneurship and Development.

So, I was surprised to learn that Gandhi does not meet the criteria that leaders in the field use to define a social entrepreneur. In "The Case for Definition," Sally Osberg and Roger Martin argue that people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, and Vaclav Havel are social activists, not entrepreneurs although they share many of the characteristics fundamental to the process of innovation. These include: inspiration, creativity, courage, and fortitude. They agree that the social activists like social entrepreneurs disrupt existing stable equilibria. In their opinion, however, what distinguishes Gandhi from Victoria Hale or Mohammed Yunus, is the social activist's focus on influence instead of direct action. It is direct action and venture creation by business entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Pierre Omidyar that challenged the stable equilibrium of garage sales or computers by offering a new product (Macs, iPads, iPhones) or process (Ebay) with alternatives so disruptive that they eventually replaced what previously existed. Hale and Yunus are also creating new ventures -- a non-profit pharmaceutical company and a micro-finance bank that reaches millions.

Yet, Gandhi is the ultimate example of sustained direct action. He changed an equilibrium which was not just "unfortunate and stable" but unjust and unequal. And, the direct action began with his own life -- from weaving the cloth he wore, to walking to the sea to make salt, to facing physical injury in lathi charges by the police. His direct actions influenced and inspired millons of others, but that is exactly how social movements are catalyzed. Today's modern day equivalent might be Javier Sicilia, a poet in Mexico, who is leading the movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity.

Despite a nod to such accomplishments, there is a clear implication in the Osberg/Martin article that somehow social activists are less than social entrepreneurs. Others have mentioned to me that the word activist conjures echoes of communist, terrorist, and feminist. Social Entrepreneurship is hot among business schools and corporate philanthropy because it is so closely linked to markets. This subtext emerges in interactions with those engaged with this field of social entrepreneurship -- often among the most privileged and educated in the West. In fact, many new entrepreneurs are drawn from what today's New York Times refers to as Super People that now populate most elite U.S. colleges and universities. These entrepreneurs believe what they are doing is profoundly different from anything before. It is not like the "normal, moribund and inefficient non-profit sector," argued one. "It uses business models to tackle social problems" said another. "It is about being sustainable and really scalable and having a concrete strategy and business plan," offered a third colleague. Interestingly, it also seems driven by technology and products - the baby incubator bag; the drought resistant seed; the tablet to purify dirty water; the curriculum that makes kids literate in 200 days.

While the buzz about social entrepreneurship in philanthropy and development is encouraging, I am puzzled both by its lack of historical analysis and connection to social movements. Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were both social entrepreneurs and human rights activists. I am troubled by the injunction that social ventures must be sustainable and the links to free markets. Back in the 80's when I worked with activists in Chicago's low-income communities, every community based group seemed to be expected to have a laundromat, a bakery or similarly ill-fated "social enterprise" just to prove efforts at being self-sustaining. I question the obsession with "cool design" that often reinforces rather than transforms unequal paradigms and rarely challenges the inequalities inherent in the functioning of markets and global trade. And, given the Global Fund for Women's support for local women-led associations, I worry about the model's focus on a single heroic individual, which favours men rather than women being dubbed social entrepreneurs. What I know, is that women, whether in elite universities like Princeton or in the most humble Zapotec communities of Oaxaca, Mexico, actually are capable of taking great risks in challenging the status quo and they know how to mobilize and social movements and communities. They do so away from the limelight; organize in groups to protect against backlash; and focus on getting communities to own the process of change. In this regard, I am encouraged that Ashoka, an organization that made the term social entrepreneur prominent is beginning to look more closely at collective action by change-makers inside communities.

Gandhi, himself a member of one of India's most enterprising communities, Gujarati traders, might gently remind us that transformative social change depends on leaders who are both entrepreneurs and activists. Their effectiveness depends far less on the products they design or market, and far more on their ability to mobilize others to take risks and stand up for what is both innovative and just. Recognizing their quotidian courage would be the right way to honor Gandhi's birthday not just today but everyday.