If we can raise public consciousness, then all change is possible.
By Carol Sanford
Part of the Big Promise Entrepreneurs series on Talkback
In this series, we tell the stories of real life Big Promise Entrepreneurs and how they pursue and pull off seemingly impossible feats of social change. The second post explores the lessons of a serial Responsible Entrepreneur, Cheryl Contee, co-founder of three media focused businesses that intend to transform social systems.
A Big Promise Entrepreneur (BPE) is a particular form of game-changer. The big promise entrepreneur’s path is to build and grow a business with the intention of making fundamental changes well beyond being a good business itself or even ensuring the values embedded in its way of operating are right.
BPEs pursue “nodal” actions to change industries, social systems, cultural paradigms and governance infrastructure. Nodes are points where different orbits intersect – and the best places, therefore, to have a huge impact. The first game changer archetype is called the Freedom Entrepreneur. You can read about them in the first blog in this series.
Transforming a Social System
This archetype I call Realization Entrepreneurs. They work on conscience and waking us up to the pervasive and systemic effects of our choices—effects that were previously invisible to most of us.
This archetype challenges the system’s structure. For example, she or he doesn’t just seek to help disadvantaged kids get an education; they seek to change the system so that it no longer produces the disadvantage in the first place. The realization entrepreneur doesn’t just make a smoke-free stove for people living in Sub-Saharan Africa but works on changing the system that fosters inequity among nations and robs people of the ability to determine their own future. A Realization Entrepreneur gets outside of the issue and asks himself or herself how far upstream one needs to go to make change at the systemic level.
The Realization Entrepreneur is a questioner of the orthodoxies that has been codified in many social relationships. This is often done with tenacious questioning and offering of potential implications. Because they upend the known and validated rules of social engagement and rank, the Realization Entrepreneur must develop enough wit and flexibility to avoid being “attacked as the messenger.” The key to this responsible entrepreneur’s work is to awakening conscience so that others care and want it to change. They help other people come to see the systemic effect of their choices. Sometimes this work takes a long time, but it delivers change that is pervasive.
Transforming the Social Justice System
Cheryl Contee, co-founder of Attentive.ly and Fission Strategy, is taking on what may be the biggest social system of our time – social justice. She left the financial safety and prestige of a corporate professional life to pursue a calling. From her wide reading in the emerging blogosphere, she had noticed it was dominated by the voices and biases of white males. She found herself talking back to her computer screen in a futile attempt to challenge the thinking she encountered, but couldn’t bring herself to post her responses on the comments page.
Then one morning she woke up and realized a different voice was needed, and because she could see what needed to be said, she needed to be the one who said it. She founded the blog Jack and Jill Politics, which is often cited as the first notable African-American blog, and one of very few by women. Her intention was to highlight various unjust positions that others advocated, give an un-shrill description of the effect this would create and provide an alternative path and outcome.
Even with this conscious effort to lift up thinking rather than slam the thinking of others, her family was terrified, especially since she was using her own name. Her brother Clarence begged her to use a pseudonym and avatar; because they feared this was an invitation to violence in a world that doesn’t value non-white contributions to the mainstream discourse. But Cheryl knew if she wanted to change the conversation, people had to know with whom they were talking.
Because people had not engaged or pushed back on many policy decisions, it often left the governance decisions devoid of the impact of the programs and laws they built. Contee realized that voices had to rise, and voices had to be heard, across broad swathes of government and media to change understanding of the impacts on people of color.
Caring Enough to Awaken Conscience
The core attribute of the archetype, caring enough to step up, led Contee to interview Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House, on a live broadcast following her keynote for Netroots Nation.
She asked and then compelled answers to confrontational questions about decisions – including in social justice systems – that were creating shambles in communities of color around the country. She highlighted social positions around how the very definition of a crime within a system differed for whites and blacks. She brought forth how the definition was causing different sentences on many crimes, including drug offenses.
Pelosi then introduced the Fair Sentencing Act and tweeted Contee when it passed. Obama signed the act into law. Once Contee saw how major media picked it up, and the effect it had on Pelosi’s follow through, she knew her work could awaken conscience regarding impacts to many more social systems.
Contee realized that working on much bigger playing fields and changing what you highlight had a long-term and more pervasive impact. She never turned back. She uses her position as an editor-at-large for This Week in Blackness, (current name of her original blog), blogger for Huffington Post and regular TV contributor on CNN and MSNBC, to call attention to the level and nature of conversation that will bring about change. She now also focuses on helping others learn how to be more strategic in their level of change (Fission Strategy) and teaching not-for-profits and causes through Attentive.ly to use social media to change the impact of their conversation. She had a crisis of conscience and now seeks to help others do the same.
About the Author and Big Promise Entrepreneurship:
Sanford, author of The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success and The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game-Changing Business Archetypes, which will be out in summer 2014, is also CEO at The Responsible Entrepreneur Institute. The Institute offers thinking partners, business courses and business acumen mentors on finding nodal strategies that change industries, social systems, cultural paradigms and governance infrastructure.