Greg Van Kirk’s Three Pieces of Advice to Millennial Social Entrepreneurs About “Vision”

Greg Van Kirk


We’re gearing up for Irish Impact 2014 and are excited to welcome back Greg Van Kirk, co-founder of Community Enterprise Solutions, Social Entrepreneur Corps and NDS Consulting. He also recently assumed the role as Director of Social Venture at Smart Vision Labs, which takes the current vision test experience and makes it obsolete.  Greg will talk more about his new role and the work they are doing to assist the 500 million people around the globe who suffer vision loss due to uncorrected refractive errors. Greg will be the perfect bookend to Dr. Jordan Kassalow’s opening talk about VisionSpring.

Today, however, we wanted to reflect a bit and offer a retrospective on Greg’s talk from Irish Impact 2013, as written by Elisabeth O’Toole, now a rising senior in international economics at the University of Notre Dame.  

The millennial generation – to which I belong – is eagerly embracing the challenge of solving huge world issues, even those deemed firmly entrenched like poverty. And we want to support those who have the same optimism. It’s becoming mainstream to wear a pair of TOMS, or to buy Alex and Ani bracelets, not to mention drink fair-trade-certified coffee from Starbucks and other establishments. Whether or not these companies are achieving true social impact is reserved for another post. What’s more relevant is that we tend to seek out individuals and organizations that we believe are making a difference. Yes, we may be contributing to a trend, and let’s be honest, perhaps even idolizing the entrepreneurs behind these start-ups. We are viewing them as heroes who have dedicated their lives to solving our communities’ problems. What could be wrong with that?

#1 – No single person is a hero

Greg Van Kirk, co-founder of The New Development Solutions Group, challenges this mindset, postulating that in the world of development, no single person is a hero. A plenary speaker at Irish Impact 2013, Greg’s take is that society is always seeking out a single protagonist in stories. As such, the social entrepreneur would be the “hero” in the story. For Greg it’s quite the opposite. No single person is a hero, but it is through our combined efforts that the story is written. If we are to leverage different forms of human capital – physical, social, cultural, economic – to be successful, then we need to work in collaboration, capitalizing on each individual’s skills. If that’s the case, then social entrepreneurship is a team effort. There is no lone hero.

#2 – It’s OK to fail

Greg emphasized – and re-emphasized – that it’s OK to fail! As many of my peers can attest to, Notre Dame students hate the idea of failure. Many of us have leadership roles in student organizations and become discouraged, embarrassed even, when our plans don’t go as expected. Instead of dwelling on and regretting failure, Greg suggests that we work to fail small and fail often through “try-storming.” Social entrepreneurs work with human beings. If we try “big,” that means we fail “big,” as well, directly impacting someone’s well being. Social entrepreneurs should look to test ideas along the way, looking for feedback from our consumer and producer base. Greg’s opening line: “Think big, act small,” which allows us to keep high end goals in sight, but taking smaller steps along the way.

#3 – Never lose sight of the “why”

Finally, never lose sight of the “why.” We must identify and hold on to our core values; it keeps us grounded, and therefore, true.  For Greg, it’s the 2nd grader eager to learn English; the mother who weaves baskets for her income; the son who works on the coffee farm to help support his family.  For us, whoever that person(s) is that forms our “why,” know their story, and keep a picture of him or her. It is only then that we are able to embrace humility, remembering why we are social entrepreneurs in the first place, and who we are truly fighting for.

Please join us for Irish Impact 2014 to hear from Greg about his new endeavor, as well as from many other practitioners within the social “e” constellation. We promise that it will be fun, informative and full of networking opportunities. Plus, you can’t beat fall in South Bend!

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