The Systems Entrepreneur: Conquering Mount Everest, Together


(Just Means and 3BL Media) — The social entrepreneur: that’s the title in the triple bottom line business world that we use to refer to an innovator with an environmental or social mission. We’ve put faces to this role like philanthropist Richard Branson and Patagonia’s Founder, Yvon Chouinard. We’ve seen academics and organizations like The Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship formally define this leader as one who “pursues poverty alleviation goals with entrepreneurial zeal, business methods and the courage to innovate and overcome traditional practices.”

Maybe it’s semantics, but does this concept of one person, with one great mission-driven strategy, limit larger-scale impact? With all the good that social entrepreneurs are creating, why does it seem like we are still hunkered down at the base camp of Mount Everest? Are we actually scaling the mammoth challenges of climate change, racial inequality and poverty? Are social enterprises capable of focusing on their specific challenges and simultaneously shifting systemic levers? What is required of us as change agents to scale “Mount Everest?” My hunch is that it might have something to do with laying aside ego, collaborating and co-creating.

Enter the systems entrepreneur.

Different from a social entrepreneur who focuses on one aspect within the framework of a complex problem, a systems entrepreneur is “a person or organization that facilitates a change to an entire ecosystem by addressing and incorporating all the components and actors required to move the needle on a particular social issue.”

Geneva Global, a philanthropic consulting company that specializes in international development and accelerates the impact of investments with foundations and high net worth individuals, is leading this conversation. In collaboration with academic and the Vice Chairman of the U.N. Secretary’s Envoy’s Office for Health Finance and Malaria, Jeff Walker, Geneva Global has been exploring what it means for an organization to create impact as a systems entrepreneur.

Doug Balfour, CEO of Geneva Global, describes a systems entrepreneur as “a central gear, a catalytic force that creates momentum among all other actors.” Critical to a systems entrepreneur’s success is flexibility and the ability to unite key stakeholders, even competitors. This means letting go of one solution or approach. As the facilitator, a systems entrepreneur fosters cooperation among players with both top-down and ground-up strategies. Geneva Global is doing just this as they discover and define this paradigm.

In early December, I had the privilege of joining some of the world’s most influential thought leaders as Geneva Global gathered a variety of colleagues---B Lab, EYElliance, The Rockefeller Foundation, Library for All, Panorama Global, Rocky Mountain Institute and Fortitude Fund---at the NYC Rockefeller offices to explore the role of a systems entrepreneur. Conversations around the challenge of operating as both a social and a systems entrepreneur within one organization were most fascinating. As Ava Lala, a Director at Geneva Global, describes in a recent blog post, “one potential solution that arose was to have a small group of systems thinkers within a larger organization who operate as “intrapreneurs.” Their distinct mission and sense of separation might be the ideal way for an organization to balance both strategies.”

This is, in part, the story of EYElliance. Formed as a coalition to unite leaders of multi-sector public, private and nonprofit partners, EYElliance creates solutions for the world’s unmet need of eyeglasses. They are an incredible example of Geneva Global’s emerging definition of a systems entrepreneur: a facilitator and an honest broker. EYElliance was birthed from the work of Vision Spring, a nonprofit whose mission is to create access to affordable eyewear, everywhere. Liz Smith, co-founder of EYElliance, recognized an opportunity to leverage over a decade worth of learnings with co-founder Jordan Kassalow to tackle the problem on a global scale:

"We were familiar with the barriers to scale within our own organization and it quickly became apparent that in order to meet the global need, the system-wide barriers that were affecting all actors, including the private sector and NGOs, needed to be addressed."

Geneva Global has supported EYElliance as they’ve worked to bring various actors in eye care around the same table.

“We’ve provided guidance as they’ve envisioned their role and helped them refine and strengthen their strategy as they’ve moved from the startup phase and into the next phase of their growth,” explains Jenna Mulhall-Brereton, Managing Director at Geneva Global.

Shifting into the role of systems entrepreneur takes commitment and passion. EYElliance recognizes that if they want to see huge impact, they must be committed to the larger system—and to the fruition of long-term results. Why? Because funders have been slow adapters to the systems entrepreneur model because the ROI takes longer to actualize. And though we all know that Mount Everest can’t be surmounted alone, convincing everyone to climb together is a challenge. 

I think Balfour nailed it when he said this:

“The obvious thing to do is to bring in all your friends [to create change], all that agree with you. I’ve started to think that’s obvious. But bring in your enemies at the same time. Even if you think that these entities might oppose the systems change you want to bring, the goal [as a systems entrepreneur] is to bring them to neutral, to sit at the same table.”

Because no one conquers Mount Everest alone. Well, successfully, at least.

Check out a juicy blog from Geneva Global about the conversation at the Rockefeller gathering. Learn how Doug Balfour, Geneva Global CEO, describes the characteristics of a systems entrepreneur. Read how Jeff Walker describes systemic impact in an HBR article, “Why Social Ventures Need Systems Thinking.”

To understand how your organization can mobilize greater social impact, contact Geneva Global to speak to one of their systems change specialists.