This post is part of our Social Enterprise Initiative 25th anniversary blog series, which highlights some of the faculty, staff, students, and alumni who have been a part of SEI throughout the years. In this post, HBS student Azeez Gupta (MBA 2019), shares his perspective on social enterprise. 

What does social enterprise mean to you? Social enterprise means empowering people with the opportunity and power to improve their lives. The world is undoubtedly getting better by most metrics, and will continue to do so at an overall level. However, many of the benefits are accruing disproportionately to particular segments, and half the world’s citizens (especially in my country India) are deprived of any ability to pull themselves out of poverty. Social enterprise means to innovate to provide every person with the basic privilege and opportunity that I was born with, the feeling that I could become anyone I wanted. Education is fundamental to this, and where my contribution will be.

What is one interesting/exciting trend or issue that our readers should be aware of? I believe the “Future of Work” will be a seminal issue in the next 20-30 years, and impact almost all of us. Scaremongers have screamed ‘job losses’ with every new technology and typically new jobs have compensated very quickly for the lost ones – but I think this time the situation will likely be different. Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends report for 2018 points out how the speed of technological disruption and customer adoptions curves are accelerating. While it took 80 years for Americans to adopt the dishwasher, the internet became ubiquitous in a decade. Coupled with ever expanding automation and the rise of AI, the next 30 years will see both job losses and rapid changes in the types of jobs available.

What is one "aha" moment you've had related to SE? I entered the SE world in 2014, with the bug to create ‘financially sustainable’ models in the livelihoods space, deeply believing that this was the only way to create long-lasting impact. However, as I worked, it struck me how the imperative for profitability seemed to push me towards working with higher and higher income groups. The “aha” moment came during a discussion with an experienced friend – just as macroeconomics has the exchange rate-capital flow-monetary policy trilemma, the impact sector has its own Scale-Sustainability-Mission Trilemma. Essentially, this means that as you try to achieve any two of the three features mentioned, there is a natural tendency to start moving away from the third as competing pressures just become too much. So, you can do high-impact work at scale, but it’s usually not profitable; you can have profitable, impactful models that are sub-scale; and you can make a lot of money at scale without real impact. This trilemma applies to most organizations and models you can think of (may vary a little on how strictly you define “impact”), though I’m not saying that it will always be true or that you can’t definitively have all three. But I’ve found it a useful lens to keep in mind for my work – if I’m focusing heavily on one of the three, then I try to periodically evaluate if I’m drifting away from the others and course correct. Keeping this in mind will hopefully help me achieve the holy grail of all three principles, but at least will ensure I achieve the two that I value most.

How would you describe the social impact you seek to have in the world? I’m obsessed with creating an education system that caters to today’s world, instead of to the 19th century - that engages young people to become independent learners using the power of technology and communities.