Navigating Heropreneurship

Recently, I ran a workshop at Shiffy Lal’s More Than Rubies conference. The theme for 2018 was #fearless. I had been asked to design a workshop for the entrepreneurial stream. Keeping the theme in mind, I decided to run a workshop titled “Navigating Heropreneurship”. It was all about not starting up something just because you can.


I first came across the term ‘heropreneurship’ when I was a programme manager for Inspiring Stories. Daniela Papi-Thornton, Deputy Director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, coined the term to refer to the state of affairs we currently find ourselves where everyone wants to ‘be’ a social entrepreneur. Papi-Thornton firmly states that “We don’t just need more founders. We need more positive social impact.”

As a budding supporter of the social enterprise sector, this approach to social impact struck a chord. We need only to cast a glance over the rich array of accelerators, incubation programmes and workshops on offer to see how much energy is channeled into supporting founders to launch their idea into reality. On one hand, this trend encourages financial independence and the rise of socially minded small business. On the other hand sits Papi-Thornton, reminding us to look at the unintended consequences of celebrating the founder at the top.

Shying away from collaboration

One such consequence I’m particularly interested in is the lost opportunity for collaboration. We often hear of founders who have started from nothing and created something wonderful. The subtext is that each of us should be encouraged to start up something; make our individual mark on the world. But what about the solutions that already exist? Why are we so reluctant to compromise on our own unique idea; a move that opens the way to collaborate with others?

The charitable sector unfortunately illustrates Aotearoa New Zealand’s aversion to collaboration. A 2017 JBWere Report reveals that since 2010, 2.5 new charities start in New Zealand every business day. With a statistic like that it should be no surprise that we have the highest number of charities per capita in the world. While these numbers show that we have a lot of people who care about creating positive social change, they also show we are not working together as well as we could. It’s worth mentioning that there are a number of charities that have developed innovative ways to fund their activities (One Percent Collective and PrePair are a couple of my favourites). But statistics on the very issues charities are trying to address are still in a terrible state, and in some cases, worsening. Clearly, more charities does not equal more effective solutions.

Can the SE sector please stand up?

The social enterprise sector has an opportunity to learn from this. It was a conversation already emerging at the Social Enterprise World Forum in Ōtautahi in 2017. A year later at Ākina’s Aotearoa Social Enterprise Forum, I observed that the sector is still struggling to connect across various geographic and industry contexts. In a culture where the founder is constantly celebrated, it can feel easier to start something now and look for partners later. But at what cost? Founder burnout, duplication of resources and a tendency to idealise leaders over supporters, to name a few.

What if we instead cultivated a culture of collaboration? Ran more workshops on collective impact and less on start-up skills? Switched focus from competing with existing solutions to complementing them? This is a movement requiring research, a willingness to co-design solutions, and sometimes, a decision to put aside one’s ego for the greater good.

Some reflections from More Than Rubies

The participants in my workshop on Saturday spent some time working through these complex, and sometimes confronting, challenges. We looked at ways to support the supporters; and how to channel good intentions towards greater social impact. Words that kept popping up were “listen”; “communicate”; and “compromise”.

I agree that the first step in navigating heropreneurship boils down to communication. What surprised me was how many people approached me to confide that they had never thought to critique the founder mindset. If communication is the key to collaboration, then we need to kickstart this conversation while the SE sector is still taking off. Success indicators I’ll be looking out for include:

  • education and training that celebrates and supports a range of social impact roles;

  • funding that targets organisations who are building on others’ work rather than competing against them; and

  • development of platforms that enable greater transparency of who is doing what within each industry sector.

Finally, some homework

If you are interested in better understanding a problem you or your organisation are facing / considering, the Impact Gaps Canvas is a useful starting point. The social enterprise Thankyou provides an excellent case study in the missed opportunity for collective social impact. For those wanting to know what's already out there, PledgeMe has crowdsourced an editable list of New Zealand’s social enterprises. And speaking of collaboration, the Ākina Foundation, NZ Post and the DIA have co-created an initiative that enables corporates to choose social procurement as a more effective alternative to CSR.