Chronicler of social entrepreneurship speaks to Erskine audience

Posted on April 25, 2012

David Bornstein on the Erskine College campus

David Bornstein, self-described “solutions journalist,” addressed an Erskine audience April 19 in one of a series of THRIVE convocations centered around Erskine President Dr. David Norman’s “Presidential Initiative for Human Restoration.”

Bornstein writes the “Fixes” column for the New York Times and is the founder of Dowser.org, a site focused on social problem solving.

He started out as a middle-class kid in Canada who never suffered real poverty. When he was a young man, his goal in life could be expressed in one word, he said: ‘Jaguar,’ the name of the car he wanted to own.

A well-compensated computer programmer for four years, Bornstein designed a program to help convenience stores sell more soft drinks and other items, and then realized, “I don’t like convenience stores.”

Questioning his expenditure of his own time and talents, he took a year off to backpack around the world, and decided he wanted to make a living by telling stories. He moved to New York City to work as a journalist, and discovered that while most journalists write about the diagnosis of problems, he preferred to write about solutions.

In The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank, Bornstein did just that, tracing the story of the bank that pioneered the practice of offering “microloans” to entrepreneurs in impoverished areas of the world. Some 200 million families have benefited from such microloans, he said.

David Bornstein makes a point during his convocation address.

There is a “hidden history” of solutions to poverty and other social problems “not devised by bureaucrats,” Bornstein said, and his work as a journalist is aimed at revealing such stories.

Bornstein, also the author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, presented examples of people who have engaged in social entrepreneurship, including Kirsten Lodal, CEO and co-founder of LIFT, an organization (originally National Student Partnerships) she started while still a sophomore at Yale University.

Working with Brian Kreiter, Lodal envisioned a model of assistance to the poor based on better treatment of people who are applying for benefits and the attempt to provide help with housing, employment and other needs from one center, using student volunteers. The idea caught on, and LIFT now has centers in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

“There are hundreds of stories like this,” Bornstein said.

He urged students to take account of their strengths and also identify what they enjoy doing and “what injustices make you angry” before embarking on the adventures of social entrepreneurship.

Addressing the question of whether social entrepreneurship is risky, he said, “What’s the biggest risk in your life? It’s the risk of doing something for 40 years when your heart isn’t in it—the risk of gutting your soul.”

During his visit, Bornstein met with several groups, including faculty, students and administrators, discussing with them the models for social innovation and entrepreneurship that are working at institutions similar in size and character to Erskine.