A new generation is entering the post-graduate workforce laden with an entirely different perspective on the role of business and purpose of charity than their predecessors and an ambition to solve the world’s most daunting social and environmental problems. I consider myself part of this idealistic group of young people, commonly referred to as the “Millennials“, who wholeheartedly believe that it is possible to “do good and make money“.
In a New York Times opinions piece titled Generational Self, William Deresiewicz describes this new generation of Millennials.
“The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman….Nonprofits are still hip, but students don’t dream about joining one, they dream about starting one. In any case, what’s really hip is social entrepreneurship — companies that try to make money responsibly, then give it all away….The small business is the idealized social form of our time. Our culture hero is not the artist or reformer, not the saint or scientist, but the entrepreneur….The characteristic art form of our age may be the business plan.”
Some would argue that this new surge of start-ups and small businesses is a response to the recession and the downtrodden job market. If you can’t find a job when you graduate, why not create your own? Others, such as myself, believe that these social enterprises are emerging in response to the global struggles the millennials have witnessed and endured in the past 2 decades. We grew up in a very different world than our parents and grandparents. Social media, affordable travel, and other technologies have bridged the knowledge gap between the privileged classes and the realities of those living in poverty in the developing world. In addition, the effects of global warming that so many have both feared and denied have finally begun visibly affecting developed countries. It is more than just an increased social consciousnesses that is driving the millennials to find their own solutions; it is a frustrating lack of answers and support from the generation that currently leads our society. The millennials are looking for a way to alter the current economic and political systems that have created rampant inequality and allowed for the unbridled exploitation of our world’s natural resources, systematically causing increasingly destructive natural disasters.
Not everyone shares the same optimism as the millennials. David Brooks wrote a very popular op-ed in the New York Times earlier this year.
“It’s hard not to feel inspired by all these idealists, but their service religion does have some shortcomings. In the first place, many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it. That’s a delusion. You can cram all the nongovernmental organizations you want into a country, but if there is no rule of law and if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.” 
I have never met a social entrepreneur who thinks they can evade politics. They often complain about how corrupt local politics are and how the widespread culture of bribery in many developing countries interferes with their social missions. These frustrating legal barriers inspire many entrepreneurs to get involved in political activism. As a recent college graduate, I have countless socially-minded friends attending law school and pursuing masters in public policy so that they can make a difference on the political side of inequality. The social enterprises that grace the covers of progressive magazines and news-stations are generally those who are on-the-ground in the developing world, selling water filters and solar lamps to rural villagers. The political activists play more of a behind-the-scenes role in the world of social entrepreneurship. They are the ones tirelessly studying the legal systems that have caused this inequality and drafting new bills and policies with enormous potential but may take years to adopt.
I agree with David Brooks that “There’s little social progress without political progress“. However, I believe the opposite is true as well. In Guatemala, there are countless villages where the average daily earning is less than $1 or $2. The corrupt political system in Guatemala has pushed these people so low down on the economic ladder that they are forced to use every last ounce of energy they can muster to feed and house their families. The thought of organizing some kind of political activist group is the furthest thing from their minds. Even if a group wanted to form, the majority of the people in these communities lack the basic education and resources necessary to make their voices heard. NGO’s and for-profit social enterprises are not trying to evade politics, they are merely attempting to afford these people the basic necessities of life that their governments have failed to provide. Once their basic needs are met, then the billions of people living in poverty will have the opportunity to create the necessary political change.
The millennials are infiltrating the current economic structure with a combination of NGOs and for-profit social enterprises where the focus is not profit-maximization and giving charity to the poor. Instead, the mission is first to help those living at the BOP (bottom of the pyramid) escape extreme poverty and then to offer affordable and sustainable products, services, and employment opportunities to empower these people and guide them slowly but surely forward along the inverted u-shape of the Kuznets curve, as taught in every development economics course. As they near the center of the curve, more time, energy, and resources will be afforded to creating political change, bringing us one step closer to a world in which every persons needs are met and their rights are respected.