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Social entrepreneurship: what’s age got to do with it?

Where should we turn to save the planet from injustice and inequality? The passion and idealism of a 20-something Stanford graduate, or the older and (supposedly) wiser woman who has been there before? It’s a hot topic in the social enterprise sector, but is the ‘right’ age really the right question?

In his regular column Letter to a Young Social Entrepreneur, Liam Black argues for experience over youthful exuberance. He (rightly) points out that “starting a social enterprise is not an alternative to a gap year, it’s bloody hard work… There are no quick fixes, silver bullets or easy answers to the rat’s nest of interlocking causes and symptoms of poverty and injustice.” He says that the “young and green” should “get some real business skills” before heading off to chase a dream.

On the other hand the achievements of the ‘young social entrepreneur’ are touted by the likes of The Guardian, Forbes (proclaiming that “never before has youth been such an advantage”) and a range of accelerator programs designed specifically for the ‘young’ entrepreneur. One of the most recent posts on Pioneers Post – You’re Never Too Young To Be a Social Entrepreneur – written by one of the student founders of the O Foundation argues that idealism and purpose is enough.

We can see both sides of the argument. We just don’t really see what age has to do with social enterprise or social innovation.

Like everyone, all social entrepreneurs will have strengths and weaknesses. The young generally bring passion, enthusiasm and an open mind. The more mature generally bring experience, business acumen, networks and a more rounded understanding of the issues they’re passionate about. But not always.

Can you really tell the 25 year old Mexican woman who has grown up amidst extreme poverty and spent years volunteering in slums to build temporary houses for the homeless, that she lacks experience in the causes and effects of poverty? Can you really say she’s not resilient?

And can you really assume that the man in his 60s who has run the gauntlet of starting his own successful social enterprise, lacks the passion, energy and enthusiasm to ‘fight another day’?

Let’s be very careful with our age-related stereotypes. They don’t serve a purpose, and divert our attention from the conversations we should be having – how can we, as a collective of people with a passion for changing the world, be more effective in tackling the big problems together?

Shouldn’t we be talking about the methods that lead to the most successful outcomes?  Shouldn’t we be focussing on how we can build networks across the social enterprise and social innovation sector, amongst people of all ages, so we can each learn from the ideas and experience of others? Any just maybe, linking social enterprises in different areas with the same goal might help with the challenge of scaling impact beyond one local community.

We’re not quite sure why age-related language has crept so powerfully into current social enterprise discourse, but we suggest it’s time to get rid of it.

Let get back to focussing on the reason we’re all part of this sector in the first place – to create a better world. We’ll have a lot more success if we stop dividing ourselves into value-laden categories and do it together.

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