I first encountered the term “social entrepreneurship” five years ago. I was sitting in my living room in Mbabane, Swaziland watching a live debate on television between South Africa’s ruling political party, the African National Congress, and the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Though the phrase itself was by no means moving, the description that followed it struck me as scarcely believable.
Both sides painted social entrepreneurship as the solution to all of South Africa’s, Southern Africa’s and perhaps, all of Africa’s economic, social and political woes. The parliamentarians cited social entrepreneurship as the only realistic mechanism through which post-liberation generations of Africans could hope to create inclusive, sustainable economic growth and development. With so many young Africans increasingly disillusioned with the incompetence and corruption of their governments, social entrepreneurship quickly became the region’s buzzword.
In fact, entrepreneurship and economics came to dominate discourse in schools, universities and corporations alike. Firms like the Allan Gray Foundation rolled out corporate social responsibility programs that sought to promote “progress through entrepreneurship.” The foundation sponsored the university educations of Southern Africa’s best, brightest and most driven young minds in “the firm belief that high impact, responsible entrepreneurs will dramatically contribute to a positive economic, social and political change.”
As I grew older, I was constantly bombarded with advice on how to start my own business, reminded that it was “never too early to start” and that my “success would help drag millions out of poverty.” Soon, my childhood dream of becoming president had been replaced with dreams of a seven-figure salary. However, the more I read, learned and understood the variety of issues facing the 55 members of the African Union, the more I worried that my new ambitions were misguided. It seemed I was being told only to consider an economic, individualistic, narrow solution to a variety of political, social and multi-faceted problems. Though the keynote speakers at international conferences and economic forums profess unlocking “Africa’s potential” through business, I fear they forget the potential value of being a president, editor or director.
By the time I arrived at Yale, I was unsurprised by the regular ridiculing of African students who considered majors in anything other than health or wealth. As a prospective economics and political science double major, I realize that I too often quip, “How much money is in that?” when other Africans mention that they want to be humanities majors. Many African students, including myself, have become so focused on entrepreneurship and economic empowerment, both in America and in our respective nations, that other fields have become no more than momentary escapes from the “real work.” I find it problematic that so many young, talented people are shunning careers in politics and journalism because they’ve come to perceive government as inherently useless, and the pen not quite as mighty as the dollar.
Art, literature, politics, journalism and music have become no more than distractions from what we perceive to be the real tool of empowerment — entrepreneurship. When elite American universities host conferences focused on development in African nations, the panels too often feature only entrepreneurs, advancing the false notion that making a positive impact requires the title “CEO.” Indeed sometimes, the phrases “youth empowerment” and “entrepreneurship” are used interchangeably even though the latter can only be a subset of the former. Entrepreneurship is just one of many ways in which youth can be empowered.
That said, entrepreneurship has achieved, and will continue to achieve, astounding, necessary advances for thousands of people in Swaziland, Morocco and Gabon, among other countries. However, I think we stand to gain even more if we reflect the diversity of our passions in our definition of “the sources of positive impact.”
Wabantu Hlophe is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.