Exploring the quiet revolution of mission-driven millennials

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Asheem Singh

An interview with Asheem Singh, author of The moral marketplace, originally published by Pro Bono News on 7th February 2018.

“A global generation of youthful social entrepreneurs is on the march, according to the author behind a new book exploring how social enterprise is driving mass political and social change.

Asheem Singh is an international activist, social entrepreneur, journalist and formerly the youngest ever CEO of leading UK charity leaders body Acevo.

In his new book The Moral Marketplace: How Mission-Driven Millennials and Social Entrepreneurs Are Changing Our World, he argues that the rapid global growth of social enterprise over the last decade has been a “quiet revolution” of “mission driven millennials”.

He told Pro Bono News social enterprise had come to dominate thinking when it comes to how social innovation happens.

“The Moral Marketplace is my term for a number of independent, grassroots business type organisations that have grown up over the past decade, and they have grown at pace,” Singh said.

Watch Asheem Singh answer the question ‘What is social enterprise?’ in this great video.

“They have begun to really dominate our thinking when it comes to how social innovation happens, how doing good happens … and there are all sorts of different kinds of organisations that come within the banner.

“What has been really cool to see, is so many, what I call mission driven millennials, enter the marketplace and set up their own social enterprises. You see it all over the world, you see it in Australia as well. There are so many fantastic, inspirational young people who say, ‘I don’t want to just do nine to five, I don’t want to just work hard for some faceless corporation and give back to charity, I want to make the object of my life doing good, as well as doing well’.”

In his book, Singh uses examples from around the world, giving first-hand accounts of social innovation in India, movements built to counter cultures of abuse and rape in Zimbabwe and exploring how entrepreneurs selling ethical products across Europe and America have proliferated.

He said the founders of the social enterprise movement were “very much not millennials”, but it was a model that resonated with younger generations.

“I don’t think we’ve seen yet the full potential of this incredible generation being tapped.”

“My book opens with a guy called Vinod Kapur, he is an Indian guy, I think he is past 70 now, he has been working in the villages for years, and he found that women in Indian villages were abused, they had no capital of their own, they had no way out of their own situation and that was because they couldn’t rear their own livestock, conditions were too harsh. So he spent 20 years, breeding a chicken that could survive in the most distant and most remote of Indian villages and by doing that he managed to reach out and find groups of women who could benefit from this innovation and over 10, 20 years, he managed to create the most incredible business called Keggfarms whose principle goal is not just the rearing of chickens and the production of eggs for India’s middle class, but actually to empower women. And some of the stories you see and some of things he has done are just incredible, so this guy is not a millennial,” Singh said.

“But what we find is that we’ve reached a sort of critical mass of these stories.

“In an age of social media, information technology, when the foundations for the sharing economy are being set and universities are doing more to spread information about the moral marketplace, people like me are writing books about it, a critical mass of these millennials are being turned on by these stories, they are tuning in and saying ‘you know I want this too’.

“I don’t think we’ve seen yet the full potential of this incredible generation being tapped.”

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Singh said social enterprise was the tool many millennials were using to change the world.

“I think that what you see is in the old days, previous generations they had their thing, they had their way of doing charity, their way of doing good. I think this generation, so generation Y-ers and generation Z-ers, social entrepreneurship is their thing, that is the tool they will use to change the world. To be part of that, as a millennial myself, being part of that is really exciting,” he said.

“I think it is that idea of almost feeling powerful enough to change the world. We live in an age of hashtag activism, which is covered in the book, we live in an age where people are giving us these messages that you too can make a difference, that each of us can make a difference each and every single day, and part of me thinks that message is getting through.

Singh-MoralMarketplace-FC-web“When you hear someone like Muhammad Yunus say that the young people he meets every single day, the young generation are the most socially conscious generation, the least selfish generation we have ever encountered, it flies in the face of everything you hear about young people. We hear that they’re snowflakes, we hear that they’re self obsessed, they live in a selfie culture and the rest of it, and some of these things to an extent among certain people are true, but I think there are also real sense of wanting to do good and social entrepreneurship being a tool with which they can do that.”

He said he was sceptical about interpretations that millennials were “the have your cake and eat it generation” who wanted to feel like they can make money and do good at the same time.

“I think that is the Gen X and baby boomers’ interpretation of what has happened here,” Singh said.

“The young people who are getting into the space that I have seen are not in this for themselves, they are in this to make a difference because that is what they care about.

“This idea of enlightened self interest, it is a very kind of 1950s value and I just think we’ve moved on, I think people genuinely feel in an age of disconnection, of alienation, of loneliness, of urban alienation, I think they feel that they want to reach out to community and build their own community and try and help people.

“A lot of the social enterprises that I see are about getting elderly lonely people and bringing them into the community. There is a great one called GoodGym here in London there is a running group, where the route for the runners goes along houses of elderly people who are lonely and don’t have any family. So the runners, stop in, drop off a paper and then carry on. They get fit, they do some good, this is not about enlightened self interest, this is about building community and I think millennial realise, what we lost through the selfish years, the ‘Ateful Eighties’ as we call them… was that sense of connection, connectivity, community, and I think social entrepreneurship is to them a way of rekindling that flame.”

In the book Singh distinguishes between two kinds of social entrepreneurs.

“I talk about what I call incubated social entrepreneurs, which is the kind of the classic Harvard grad who has had a very privileged life, who then goes to Kenya and says ‘I want to help these Kenyan farmers because I am great’. And sometime they do great stuff and sometimes they really help, there are some great examples of those kinds of social enterprises in the book, I think that is fantastic. I am all for that. I am so glad they are doing that and not ruining the world by joining some investment bank or making arms to sell to a war zone,” Singh said.

“But what I would say are the more radical and more exciting social enterprises for me are those ones that are fed-up by what I call the people living at the bottom of the pyramid, so they are bottom pyramid social enterprises.

“They are the ones where you have got someone living in a disadvantaged situation, a difficult circumstance, they have suffered and they say ‘I am never going to let that happen to anyone ever again, I am damn well going to set up something which changes the situation’. It might be something completely stupid like a waste management system because someone they know died of cholera, but that is an act of social entrepreneurship and is every bit as valuable as the mega chicken that Vinod Kapur produced, or the really cool tech for good apps that all these Harvard grads are producing.”

But Singh said the full potential of social enterprise was not being realised.

In particular he argued that previous and current governments have not done enough to unleash the potential of Britain’s social enterprise community.

He said there was a big debate currently taking place in the UK regarding public service contracting, that was being fueled by the collapse of Carillon.

“Government outsourcing megaliths like Carillon, who rinse the public for profit, are the antithesis of the moral marketplace of social enterprises,” Singh said.

“Our public services are a ticking time bomb as a result of contracts made with companies like Carillion. The government’s regrettable indifference to the real potential of social enterprise to reform public services and place social value at their heart – if it continues – will only result in waste and misery. I trust that Carillion’s collapse will be the stimulus for radical change.”

Among 30 policy ideas included in The Moral Marketplace Singh has suggested a “community first” test for public service contracting, which urged government to privilege purpose-driven, socially-minded organisations over private sector businesses when tendering for public services.

“It is about putting organisations with social purpose, social value at their heart, and saying we’re going to give you a chance to get this contract first before we turn to anyone else. Just something simple like that can really empower, from the government perspective, these organisations. From our perspective, we the people, we need to be encouraging them to do that,” Singh said.

He said the public should continue to support social enterprises through learning more and buying from organisations in the moral marketplace.

“There is so much we can do as an activated, motivated public. More than ever people are wearing their causes as badges and saying this is what I stand for and I just think we need to get that momentum behind, these amazing people, these mission driven millenials who are saying you know what, I want to change the world.”

He said he hoped his book helped people learn more about social entrepreneurship and offered lessons to people looking to enter the space as well as for officialdom on how to create a consensus that works better for social enterprise.

“If you are someone who cares about doing good and you want to know what good looks like in our time, maybe you have heard about this thing social enterprise but you’re not sure what it looks like, hopefully my book will be able to help you elevate your knowledge and also feel good about what’s happening out there. If I can help more people get more active and more involved then I think the book will have done its job.”

The moral marketplace by Asheem Singh is available with 20% discount on the Policy Press website. Order here for just £10.39.

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