06/07/2012 05:33 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

What Social Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Aung San Suu Kyi

Listening up-close to Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi -- in her first public speech outside her home country in 24 years -- was an extremely profound experience, my own personal highlight from the just-concluded World Economic Forum on East Asia. I sensed that much of the Forum participants felt the same way, greeting her with a much-deserved standing ovation as she came into her session "One-on-One Conversation with a Leader"

"The Lady", as she is reverently and affectionately known, tackled her current thoughts, strategies, and actions for her country Myanmar. The speech as a whole was extremely engaging, but within her words lie profound lessons and insights for social entrepreneurs. Here are some I've highlighted:

1. 'Empowerment means we let people decide for themselves -- as far as possible -- on how best to improve their own lives.'

Working with microentrepreneurs these past few years has instilled in me how true this statement is. In our desire as social entrepreneurs to help, we must straddle the fine line between control and empowerment. The former might lead to results, but will not be sustainable since it breeds dependency. Empowerment is the harder goal and takes more effort, but in the end is more liberating to all stakeholders, most especially those being helped. I myself am very fascinated on this topic, and have also previously written about it - 'Business Partners, Not Beneficiaries'

2. 'We don't get anything for nothing ... There is no use in hoping without endeavor; without endeavor, there is no hope.'

This dovetails perfectly from the first point; Social entrepreneurs have to be very cautious on involving the community to also work for their own benefit. If we want to change the mindsets of the poor, then we have to transcend mere dole-out into participation. Fellow Schwab Foundation Social Enterprise Awardee Gawad Kalinga provides housing to the poor, but the poor themselves provide their own sweat equity in the building of their own homes. One's efforts yield results and reinforce self-confidence and belief; and as such, it is just fitting that on a higher level, endeavor leads to hope.

3. 'I understand investors invest because they hope to profit from ventures, but we also hope our country must benefit as much as those who come to invest."

As social enterprises scale and grow, resources must necessarily flow in -- and for this, we rely on multiple sources of capital -- whether it is grants, donations, or investments. On the last example, there exists a movement now in social investment and venture philanthropy that embodies the thought that Aung San Suu Kyi made -- that investments must indeed capture returns for the investor, but must also redound in clear social and economic benefits to the investee. Win-Win might sound like something that should be built-in, but frankly, this might not always be the case given the different investors social entrepreneurs deal with. As such, we must be very careful in understanding the driving principles behind our potential partners.

4. Be cautious of 'Reckless optimism ... a little bit of healthy skepticism is in order.'

Social Entrepreneurs, consumed by their sense of mission, often see limitless possibilities; deep inside us, we truly believe that we can change the world -- or else we wouldn't do what we do! This is something that inspires us, drives us, and gives us strength. But we should balance this with what Aung San Suu Kyi calls "healthy skepticism." A perspective that prods and challenges what we do, and how we go about things. We should always keep our feet firmly planted on the ground -- or the grassroots, as the case may be -- as we go about trying to improve the world around us. Idealism is good, but perhaps pragmatic idealism is more apt.