An Interview with SEDF Keynote: Pamela Hartigan

This post originally appeared on It was posted on September 30, 2013. 

In early September, I had the opportunity to speak with Pamela Hartigan, perhaps best known as one of the pioneers of the “social entrepreneurship” movement and the co-author of The Power of Unreasonable People, a book focussed on “how social entrepreneurs create markets that change the world”.

Throughout our discussion, Pamela’s honesty and frankness humbled me. After thirty minutes, it was painfully obvious: this is a woman who fights for what she believes in. Here are a few lessons from one of the leaders of the social entrepreneurship movement.

1. We need to eliminate the dichotomy between “good jobs” and “bad jobs”

Hartigan is Adjunct Professor at Columbia Business School where she teaches an introductory class on social entrepreneurship. She explained that MBA candidates often approach her in a panic when graduation rolls around. “Should I take this consulting position? Should I turn it down?” This was her response:

“I think that one of the wonderful things that I’ve learned through my long life is that I’ve had a variety of great jobs. Young people today will have many different careers and they need to be able to take advantage of all of the different opportunities. I think that you can find purpose in anything that you do. It’s what you make of it. I am very much a proponent of seizing the opportunities, and not closing yourself off to opportunities—i just think that’s self-defeating.”

2. Perhaps the term “social entrepreneur” has outlived its usefulness

As one of the pioneers of the “social entrepreneurship” movement, Hartigan explained that her thinking has shifted somewhat over the past few years.

“My thinking is evolving. I’m not quite sure whether the term social entrepreneurship has outlived its usefulness and is not now creating an unhelpful dichotomy. I’m also getting sick of the term innovation. I think there are very few truly innovative things in the world. I think that’s it’s about making things work better, work smarter. Things that will drive the kinds of change that we know we need. Were slapping innovation onto everything.”

3. How to learn the skills needed to become a “social entrepreneur”? Try getting lost.

In a recent article for the Huffington Post, Hartigan discussed her views on the incompatibility between the type of skills developed through our education system (obedience, diligence and rote productivity among others), and the types of skills and experiences needed in the innovation marketplace.

Citing Mark Twain, she she encouraged students to look beyond school for their development and to not let schooling interfere with their education. Hartigan suggested that one of the most useful experiences for young people was to travel. She reiterated similar sentiments in conversation.

“[Young people] need to get out into the world and challenge every single assumption that they’ve ever had. [And when they do], they come back with a completely different view of things. I’ve never found anybody who’s ever gone out and done one of these experiences and who hasn’t come back completely changed. Those kinds of experiences are just incredibly important. You don’t get those experiences in the classroom.

4. “Social Entrepreneurship” is not a community; it’s a movement—and an exclusive one at that. In order to truly drive the change that we need it needs to be an inclusive movement.

“We don’t want to generate a community,” Hartigan explained, “We want to generate a movement.”

“Communities have a way of being very closed. One of the fears that I have about social entrepreneurship is that it’s growing into these little communities. Change happens because of movements. Change doesn’t happen because of one organization. Movements have to be all-inclusive.”

5. The private sector is making significant strides

In addition to her role at Columbia and her post as the Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford, Hartigan is a co-founder of Volans, an organization that drives market-based solutions to the world’s greatest challenges. In recent years, Volans has worked with big name corporations such as HSBC, Nestlé and HP.

In response to my question, “how do we create a movement?” Hartigan was emphatic.

“It’s happening! Worldwide this is happening!” she said. “it’s happening in corporations…I can tell you, sometimes when I sit on those boards, I think I’m sitting on Greenpeace!”