Technology and Social Enterprise


I had the privilege to moderate a panel at Harvard Business School this morning at the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference on social entrepreneurship and technology. This is sort of the million dollar question, and also sometimes the millstone around the neck of the entrepreneur. My husband and I were talking about it last night and he joked the question he gets most is, “If I’m starting a new enterprise, do I need to learn to code?” In truth, the answer is usually no. You do need to know enough to decide which technology decisions made on your behalf are worth the time, money, and effort. But first, how do we define social enterprise? One of the panelists, Adam White of Groupshot suggested the Ashoka definition: using using the skills and practices of entrepreneurship to create social impact. It usually means the organization you create is sustainable financially, whether for or not for profit. And why does technology matter so much to the social entrepreneur? Well, in many ways, it’s his or her most important asset. And right now, it’s probably not even very expensive to implement what you need. This was not true even seven years ago.

In September 2005, Hurrican Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. You may recall a famous op-ed in the New York Times whenJohn Tierney suggested Wal-Mart — not the Federal Government — run FEMA. This position was informed by the simple fact that Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, had the supply chain and tech infrastructure to mobilize in time to get needed supplies into New Orleans.

I don’t think this would be true today, and our panel helped illustrate why. And think recently to the groundswell around SOPA/PIPA, the successful backlash when the Susan G. Komen Foundation took funding away from Planned Parenthood, and the amazing efforts to map hotspots in Haiti to deliver supplies after the earthquake. And there’s my personal favorite,, where you can literally report the pothole in front of your house to your (UK) Council for fixing. I wish I had that.

It seems to me there are two crucial applications of technology for social change: one is powering new systems to do the work we need to do. Whether it’s open data for governments, which Nick Grossman of Civic Commons discussed, or navigating crisis, to which Zach Burke of Exygy, Ana Roca Castro of #Latism, and Adam White spoke. Technology is powering the pipes of social change.

The other way we’re seeing technology used for social good is consumer-facing. Whether it’s social media, like the famed use of Twitter during the Arab Spring, or a crowdsourced giving platform like DonorsChoose or Crowdrise.

The key, I learned, is the spirit of openness and community in which the work is built. Open was indeed the word of the day.

I was thrilled to work with a panel of experts who set the stage for what is happening in the vast field of technology and social enterprise, helping to orient our audience’s thinking about using technology in its social ventures.

Follow the stream of discussion at #secon12.

Image credit The Value Web Photo Gallery.