Ep. 46 - Evaluating Systems and Creating Tools for Social Entrepreneurship with Greg Van Kirk

This SEA Podcast episode was recorded and published on June 26th, 2024.

David: Greg, it's such a pleasure to have you on the Social Enterprise Alliance Podcast. Thank you for joining us today. 

Greg: Ah, thank you much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here. 

David: Yeah. Really looking forward to this conversation. Um, where do you start? Like, what's your story? How did you get involved with Social Enterprise? Uh, you obviously have been doing this for an awful long time, so, really curious to know what drew you in. 

Greg: Thanks for the question. For me, I guess it was really. I had been working in structured finance, investment banking, in San Francisco, New York, and I knew I wanted to go and live in a different culture and do something where I could find some purpose, but I wasn't sure what that was.

 Fortunately, I came by David Bornstein's book about Mohammed Yunus called the price of a dream. I learned about microfinance and I thought, well, maybe this is something I could do: apply some business acumen to trying to do something good in communities. And so, that sort of sparked me to quit my job and join the Peace Corps, which a lot of people thought was a wonderful idea, and a lot of people thought I was insane. 

So I ended up in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, and to make a long story short, I was, I ended up way up in the Western Highlands in the mountains with an Indigenous community, uh, working in microfinance and I was helping to set up a local internet center at the time.

And then just one thing led to another and uh, somebody, somebody said to me once, you know, the way that you figure out what to do is to keep notes of what frustrates you every day, and when you see a pattern, then try to solve that problem. 

And so for me, it was that I was in this beautiful community. There were a lot of nonprofit workers, there were a lot of new businesses coming in, given some of the history of the community, a lot of tourists coming in, but there was nowhere to go. 

That frustrated me, and I thought, well, somebody should open up a restaurant. I said that a while and after a little while, nobody did. So I was like, well, I guess I will, how hard can it be?

 I took some of the money that I'd saved from banking and got the permission of the Peace Corps to open up a restaurant and with the whole goal of creating economic opportunities and creating more jobs and then fortunately, it went really well, and I had some just wonderful people that were part of the team, and then from there added on additional services and, long story short is, you have a little bit of success, knock on wood, you stop seeing things as problems and you start seeing them as opportunities. For me, the opportunity was to look around and work with local folks to try to solve some longstanding issues. And there were a lot of donations and grants going on, but there wasn't a lot of sustainable enterprise going on.

And so that seemed to be the best tool at the time to help people create their own small businesses to solve those problems. 

David: One of the things I love about that story and, and... is really just the simple fact that at the end of the day, you really were just trying to create that economic engine. So like here's all these opportunities just for work and for dignity for the people in that community. And so I love how often social enterprise stories can begin with, "This is really about doing business the right way from the beginning."

 You know, sometimes I wonder if we complicate that definition. 

Greg: Yeah, no, I'm, I'm with you 100%. I mean, obviously I, if you look at the mission of why I was there and the nature of the work was to try to help people become empowered to solve problems. And a restaurant was really a tool to be able to do that. And obviously, a restaurant with a social focus to try to create jobs, that is part of the indicator of success. 

And so, people used to always talk about, you know, why'd you start a restaurant? It's like, respectfully, I'm agnostic as to what kind of business it could be. It was just the best type of business to solve the types of problems that we were trying to solve. 

Lauren: Yeah, that's awesome. I'm also curious, so, like a lot of the experience that you have is in consulting and teaching others about social entrepreneurship. I'd love to hear about your passion for Social Enterpreneur You. 

Greg: thank you. Um, I only realized, I guess, even a few years ago, but I've always loved teaching.

Um, when I first graduated from college, actually, my graduation present was a one way ticket to Japan, where I was teaching English. And then I started managing a small language school and such, but, you know, with regards to teaching social entrepreneurship and consulting, um, you know, I think it's oftentimes a much more powerful way of trying to create positive change than doing it yourself. 

If I can play a positive, value-added role in helping somebody else to identify a problem or design a solution, then in their hands, it can scale all kinds of different ways, right? 

And so the more that I can work with students or the more that I can work with organizations or other entrepreneurs and ideally, give some help and support and maybe some new ideas or new frameworks or new tools, then, you know, that's just the most powerful way to scale, and it's just so gratifying to see others be able to achieve what they're aspiring to achieve as well. 

David: Well, certainly with your passion, I think that's one of the reasons why we brought you on here is an extension of teaching is writing, and, uh, you just released a book, which is really a big toolbox for people.

So it's called, It's What You Set In Motion: A Toolbox for Collaborative Changemaking. Why was this important for you to write right now and release now? 

Greg: Thanks for asking. And yeah, it is a big toolbox, right? It's funny because people get it or I'll send them a copy of the book and like, "Hey, well, call me when you get it, " and they're like, "no, no, no. Let me read it first." I'm like, "no, no, no, you don't read it. It's a toolbox, right?" Um, so it's a good way to frame it. 

But, um, I guess there are a couple of things. First is, you know, going back to business, but going back to the Peace Corps and working with communities and what have you, is I've always both been incredibly curious and motivated by trying to figure out the "how" of things. Respectfully, I think there's a lot of "why" and a lot of "what," but there's not a lot of "how" out there.

Even with the Peace Corps, I was very fortunate to have great trainers and a wonderful structure and great people that I worked with in the beginning. But, when you get up to a community, how do you identify problems? How do you help to start a business? You know, how do you prioritize? How do you design innovations? There just wasn't much there. 

And so, you know, funny thing, even at the Peace Corps training center in Guatemala at the time, I remember there was this little teeny library and I went looking for some resources on how to do this kind of work. And the only how, I kid you not, was "how to figure skate". Yeah, somehow that had slipped in there in, in the mountains of Guatemala. So not extremely helpful.

But so all along the way, as, either as a practitioner, as a consultant, as an educator, as a facilitator, all these different hats that I've been very fortunate to wear, I've always found that there's a need for just really practical how-to tools for people to talk together, collaborate together, frameworks try to identify problems and create positive change. 

Not to say that there aren't any hows out there. There are a lot of different approaches, but if I think about, like, cross disciplines, sometimes approaches can be a little bit too prescriptive, like I have to choose my lane, whereas the idea of having a toolbox is, well, you know, today I've gotta fix the plumbing, you know, here I've gotta build something metaphorically, right? It doesn't have to be prescriptive.

So long story short or short story long, I've, seen this need for how-to tools all along the way, and so I've been building them and creating them and, you know, I think that dovetails with a real need that we have. I mean, as we look around, right, if we look about systems, especially, I think, over the past several years, a lot of our systems are not doing so well. They're broken, they're, inequitable, they're antiquated. Um, more and more people are growing and trying to get out and create positive change that we need, so, why not put together a toolbox and try to help facilitate that process? 

Lauren: Yeah. Yeah. That's awesome. Just to dig into that a little more, what systems do you see that are broken? How do you know that they're not working? And then, kind of a follow up to that is just what tools, then, can help to fill in the gaps there?

Greg: Yeah, I mean, it's a great question. When we think about systems, we can think about the economic system or the health care system or the education system.

If you think about where to start, it's to start small, right? Start where you have close proximity. And then try to figure out how you can effectuate change in a smaller system, and that system could be a community, it could be an organization, it could be a classroom. As you learn about what works and what doesn't, how do you then scale the things that work to try to help effectuate change in the larger system? So, you know, you don't change systems by trying to change systems, you change them by starting small and working with what you know, and engaging with people. 

 And in terms of tools, I mean, what I found-- and this is ideally one of the unique parts of the book-- is that I have, you know, key principles for creating change, so think about, " How do I get in the right mindset? How do I get started? How do I self correct?" These sort of things that we know that if you follow these principles overall, you're going to have a better opportunity to create positive change. 

Greg: And then you have tools, which are the conversation frameworks, in the book. So in there, I have it broken down into 13 toolkits, and there are 76 tools. So that's everything from building your team to recalibrating your team to identifying problems and opportunities. 

And then the final piece is I, I've curated 90 short videos from around the world of people doing really amazing work in all kinds of different fields. 

It's principles, tools, and case studies, as opposed to separate books for all three. And so you can use them interdependently, or you can use them all together, and I've found that that scaffolding is just a really practical and simple way to help people get going and putting this into practice.

And, um, you know, it's just this constant learning journey, which is really the fun part of it. 

But, you know, if I go back to these videos that I've curated, um, they're all up on YouTube and, you know, I've got QR codes in the book and everything so that you can go to them and use them.

 But going through all of these videos, I probably went through a thousand, try to figure out what are the best ones to use for practice and what have you, you know, at the end of it, I sort of step back, and what's a pattern that I see in all of these videos of all of these social enterprises and non profits and movements and everything that are shown throughout these videos around the world? 

The through line for most of them is joy. It's joy. 

We got these really difficult problems that people are working to solve. But they bring joy to it. They create joy. There's smiles on people's faces. So, okay, what's the key to sustainability? And to your point, we can get all technical and you have to do this or that.

But can you create a joyful environment for your team and for your customers? Because joy sustains because people want to come back to it. 

Like, it took me 25 years to learn the word joy, right? I mean, it's crazy. But if we can just keep some of these things in mind, it makes it a heck of a lot easier. 

David: Yeah, I, I love that so much. I always think about, you know, to be human is to work. Like that's why when we ask new people, like, "Oh, what do you do for a living?" The root of that question is, "What do we love to create?" And, and I think that joy is a great way to be asking that question. I love that.

Lauren: Yeah, that's great. 

Just to pivot a little bit, we kind of like to talk a lot about the future of social enterprise, and, uh, particularly in the United States, what that could look like. 

So as someone who has been in this space, and is seeing kind of a larger perspective of the issues and the progression of social enterprise, where do you see the future of social enterprise going in the next, I don't know, five, ten years? And is there something that you hope that the book sparks in that, um, future for social enterprise? 

Greg: Thank you. That's a great question. 

What I would say, going back to looking at patterns and trends and such, right, is, um, I'm very hopeful with this-- I sound like an old dude-- but with this generation of folks, that are, um, students in high school, students in college, you know, young professionals. I think I've been fortunate to, through teaching and different programs I've run and such, to just be around people and, just, it's inspiring. There's this real desire to create positive change. 

And I think, you know, obviously social enterprise is a tool and, you know, how do we-- I think valuing social metrics, right? You know, okay, I'm going to start a business, but, um, my indicators of success need to be something that's positive for people or the planet or what have you. I think, I we clearly see that's a priority for this generation. 

And so I'm very hopeful. I mean, I think that we've seen over the years, either through, you know, B Corp or ESG or what have you, we're building in the money ball of social enterprise, right? There're going to be fits and starts and we're gonna go back and forth, but it is moving along the way and in the direction that these aren't mutually exclusive. You can have a business, you can have an enterprise that does something positive for communities and for society. So I'm hopeful of that.

 In terms of, you know, whatever role the, the book or some of the tools and such might have in, participating in that, it's this big master toolbox, right? And then what I've been doing since I launched the toolbox or the book is then having questions with so many different friends and colleagues and, and, people in different organizations and different walks of life about how to create smaller tool kits that are much more targeted for certain populations. 

And so, right now, in particular, I'm just finalizing tonight, um, a certificate in collaborative changemaking, for college and university students. It's a new partnership, um, that I've been building out with Ashoka U and with the National Peace Corps Association.

And so the idea being that if you look at college and university students, cause we know that again, people are out there trying to do great work, right? And there may be volunteering in their local community, right? Maybe they go to Fordham, they're volunteering in the Bronx, or they go to Indiana, they're volunteering in Bloomington or you know, going to developing world countries and trying to do some good, like, you know, Peace Corps experiences. 

So you've got inspired people inspired to go out and create positive change. But again, what I've found is just a lack of tools of how-to, how to do this.

And so, given the fact that people are already going out, the idea of this certificate is, let me take a smaller number of principles, a smaller number of tools, add in some how-to's, and create a, a field guide for college and university students, um, and then if they do certain things over a certain period of time, they can earn a certificate. And ideally that validates their experience. Obviously, it's a bit of a driver to go through and use this and learn the process of creating, collaborative changemaking. 

And then too, you know, that, they can have that to speak to, to, for future employers or other opportunities, and somebody could say, "Hey, what's that?" And then they can speak to the value of getting out and building empathy and collaboration and creating dignified solutions. And so to really speak the language of creating positive change, which I think sometimes gets lost a little bit in career searches or when we're talking about jobs or even what we've done in the past. 

David: Yeah. I couldn't agree more. I get so excited about this next generation. It feels like a new script and they're going to really bring a lot of change into the world.

And that's amazing about the certificate program because, yeah, that, that puts everything into action, that motivates the next generation, that equips the next generation even more. So to build into the, your wealth and experience through that work is really fantastic. 

Um, so speaking of that, we want to make sure that people do know how they can know more about your work, they can plug in if they're interested in that certificate program. What can they do to sign up and, you know, really tap into all the things that you're doing?

Greg: Yeah. Thank you. 

 You can go to Collaborative Changemaking, which is, uh, like a showcase page there on LinkedIn, but more specifically, on collaborativechangemaking.com, Right now, that's where the book is. Or you can always just connect with me on LinkedIn. 

David: Awesome. 

Lauren: Yeah. This was super awesome, Greg. Very insightful. Really appreciate all of the wisdom and insight that you have to share.

David: Thanks again for having us and, everyone, make sure you check out the toolkit. We'll include all the links here in the show notes and, uh, Greg's someone that you're going to want to connect with. So Greg, thank you again so much for your time.Greg: Thank you both so much. It was a total pleasure.