Non-profit CEO explains entrepreneurship through punk music

On Thursday afternoon, nonprofit leader Ned Breslin explained social entrepreneurship to Yale undergraduates through punk music.

Breslin — the CEO of Water for People, an American-based nonprofit that works to establish long-lasting, safe drinking water resources in developing countries — came to campus as the first-ever speaker of InnovateHealth Yale, the School of Public Health’s new enterprise program. Breslin’s talk, which was entitled “The Fighter, the Skateboarder and the Punk: Unusual Clues on Social Entrepreneurism from the Edges,” focused on the habits of effective entrepreneurs, using himself, martial artist Cameron Conway and skateboarder Rodney Mullen as representative of entrepreneurial spirit.

“Social entrepreneurs have to be a little edgy, maybe even a little angry,” he said after playing his first punk sample, a song by 1980s band Black Flag. “They tend to come at problems not dependent on the institutions in place but questioning them.”

Heeding the advice of one of his professors at St. Lawrence College, Breslin said he joined a water project in northern Kenya in 1987; he ended up remaining in Kenya for 20 years. In 2011, Breslin received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship and is now recording a podcast series for Stanford Business School on social entrepreneurship.

Social entrepreneurs are often successful because of hard experiences growing up, Breslin said. He recounted his own childhood — in which he was a victim of sexual abuse — as an anchor for his personal growth, adding that punk music helped him from an early age.

“A lot of people who came to punk were a bit like myself: isolated, abandoned, beaten and alone,” Breslin said, referencing Conway and Mullen’s struggles with bullying and abusive fathers. “The institutions that were really designed to protect us actually didn’t.”

Turning away from his personal life to the topic of his nonprofit, Breslin compared social entrepreneurship to a mosh pit, saying that entrepreneurs must take risks and trust that their communities will taken an active interest.

Water For People recently developed a new strategic plan that includes a 10-year monitoring program of water systems and also strives for an increased level of involvement with local institutions in the developing countries themselves.

“Either our program works, and we change the mosh pit direction, or we fail and we close,” said Breslin about the new initiative. “Outside of your comfort zone, you create greater beauty.”

Breslin also emphasized the value of helping others more than serving oneself. Six years ago, Water for People created the Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW), a monitoring tool for water and sanitation projects, but the organization decided to give other organizations the license to use and develop the program as well.

“We could have held FLOW and made a bazillion dollars,” Breslin said. “But we are so focused on that outcome of water flowing every day that we offered it out.”

FLOW has now spread to four countries in Africa, in addition to 330 nongovernment organizations, the World Bank and The United Nations Children’s Fund. The tool is stronger and better than it could have ever been if Water for People had managed it alone, Breslin said.

In the talk, Breslin also said that the biggest problem with social entrepreneurs today is that they may be tempted to preoccupy themselves with fundraising and lose sight of larger goals.

“The key to Water for People is we’re fanatical monitors of our work,” Breslin said. “We see this outcome, but we don’t have enough money to get there. In some senses, not having enough money to get there has made us more creative.”

At the end of his talk, Breslin asked for audience suggestions on how to improve his presentation, then offered to send interested students a CD of his favorite punk music.

Michael Marcel ’16 and Noelle Villa ’16 both said they enjoyed how Breslin conveyed aspects of his own life in the presentation.

“It was certainly not what I was expecting, but I liked how he connected his personal life to his business,” Marcel said, adding that he is not generally a fan of punk music, but is now reconsidering. “It’s not as bad as I thought,” he said.

Breslin will be giving the keynote speech at the Social Entrepreneurship Institute Shubert Theater event on Dec. 6.

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