Your Path as a Social Entrepreneur by Professor Michael Gordon

Design Your Life, Change the World:
Your Path as a Social Entrepreneur

Professor Michael Gordon
University of Michigan



            This book is for changemakers – the people and organizations that want to make a difference in the world.

I hope to show you, as I hope to show my students each day, that you don’t have to make a choice between making a living and making the world a better place. The same applies to organizations and business.

I wrote this book for you.


            For at least a decade, I’ve thought about two questions:

  • How can organizations best address important societal problems such as poverty, inadequate health care, sub-par education, and an unhealthy planet?
  • What’s the best advice I can give to the dozens, if not hundreds, of students I talk to who want to address these issues and live lives of relative comfort?

            Almost all of my teaching at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan has been focused on the first question. The essence of my teaching has been to expose my students to remarkable organizations that make headway where most others fail.

            The more I thought about the question of how organizations can address societal problems, the more I realized that an organizations-only focus was too limited. It’s vitally important to look at the people who started those organizations, or grew them, or shaped them. Remarkable organizations are pretty closely linked to remarkable people—people whose clear vision, passion, and skills at getting things done give life to ideas that truly make a difference. So, I began to focus my teaching on some of these difference makers, too.

            I wrote this book to help you find your place in changing society by working for or alongside, or even starting, new kinds of organizations that don’t employ starched shirts and don’t deploy smokestacks. I’ve tried to do so with many, many examples, including examples of the paths that others “just like you” have traveled, even as I’ve tried to make this a “business” book that takes a radically different view of what businesses should be like, and a you-can-do-it book for “students” of any agewho have doubts about what one person can do in the face of so many societal problems, needing to pay back their loans, wanting to make a difference, and enjoying lattes, even though I know—and I think they do, too—that they can unlock their potential and live a life of meaning and fulfillment that is beyond anything that most people ever dream about.

This book aims to be about people, organizations, and fixing the world. Here’s how:

Chapter 1 >>
How to Change the World
introduces the major themes of this book including the topic of “societal hybrids.”

Chapter 2 >>
Interviews With Changemakers: Contemplating, Becoming, and Being
gives us insights into the lives of five change makers. All are accomplished in their own right, but they occupy different positions on the spectrum of experience, from “starting out,” to “starting to make things happen,” to “game changer.” Yet each of them is human and, despite their accomplishments, I think you will find lots of similarities between their musings about their lives and your own. Here are their stories:

  • Gina Valo: a beauty queen who works at
  • Cynthia Koenig: an anthropologist-photographer-conservationist and her efforts to take Hippo Rollers global
  • Patrick Donohue: a systems engineer who turns his attention to social good
  • Sachin Rao: a consultant who renounces the corporate world to serve the poor
  • Steve Mariotti: an automobile industry expert who teaches inner-city kids about entrepreneurship

Chapter 3 >>
The Nature Of Sustainable Societal Hybrids

expands on the notion of hybrid organizations, which borrow from business and nonprofits to address societal problems and do so in a sustainable fashion.

Chapter 4 >>
Enterprise For A Sustainable World and The BoP Protocol
is the “organizations section.” It begins with a description of a particular approach to developing new kinds of businesses at the economic base of the pyramid—the Base of the Pyramid Protocol.

Chapter 5 >>
In Depth: Enterprise For A Sustainable Worlddraws broader lessons from Chapter 4 that pertain to any organization striving to produce powerful changes in society.

Chapter 6 >>
Healthy: The Institute For Oneworld Health
shows how these lessons are applied in organizations working on attacking diseases in the developing world.

Chapter 7 >>
Wealthy: Kickstart

creating economic opportunity in Kenya

Chapter 8 >>
Wise: National Foundation For Teaching Entrepreneurship
creating career-building educational opportunities for young people from poor communities, mostly in the United States

Chapter 9 >>
Green: Home Depot, Ikea, & The Forest Stewardship Council

protecting the world’s forests, and with them, the planet’s ability to sustain us.

Chapter 10 >>
Anatomy Of A (R)Evolution
explains how all systems evolve—whether natural systems of plants or animals, or man-made systems such as the system of organizations that we’ve created.

Chapter 11 >>
Big Levers + Evolution
builds on this insight so that we learn how to identify societal solutions offering the potential for dramatic change, understand how we can improve on their potential and keep testing them until they become better still, and can spread their benefits to as many people as possible.

Chapter 12 >>
Building Blocks For Your Future: The Changemaker’s Cube

provides “exercises for the interested reader” and outlines a step-by-step methodology for anyone interested in creating a life of meaning and fulfillment using the Changemaker’s Cube, a tool developed for building your skills and aptitude.

FAQ: The Practitioner’s Guide To Becoming a Changemaker
is an FAQ where I carry on a little dialog – answering questions I get asked most often by students and entrepreneurs, in short, people just like you.


            As I stated previously, the more I thought about the question of how organizations can address societal problems, the more I realized that an organizations-only focus was too limited. It was vitally important as well to look at the people who started those organizations, or grew them, or shaped them. Remarkable organizations are pretty closely linked to remarkable people—people whose clear vision, passion, and skills at getting things done give life to ideas that truly make a difference. So, I began to focus my teaching on some of these difference makers, too.

            But something else was going on. None of the organizations I admired was working in isolation. The set of organizations aiming to improve educational opportunities for the poor, as an example, might cooperate or compete with each other—or ignore each other altogether—but collectively their efforts would determine how well these students’ educational needs were served. I felt that if I was to be teaching about how to address society’s vexing problems, I had to consider how to have influence at this higher (perhaps you like the word broader) level, too. In other words, what are some of the forces that propel organizationS (plural) forward, and how can we use them to shape the paths that organizations follow? I began teaching a bit about “complex adaptive systems,” though I usually use such a fancy phrase only when I’m trying to impress. I simply wanted to show my students, again mostly by example—and by examples whose lessons could be applied—that systems often exhibit noticeable behavior at the collective level, even when no one is in charge, and that they also adapt or evolve in ways that we can understand, influence, and take advantage of. And one such system is the collection of businesses and other organizations.

            The second question that I thought about—What advice should I give to students who want to “make a difference” and set up their lives with enough security so that they can comfortably raise a family, travel, buy toys they desire, … and retire?—was mostly a practical question. I’d teach courses in which I’d describe businesses intent on inventing manufacturing processes that don’t pollute, or hospitals providing amazing heart care to the poor for free, or taking kids on the edge of dropping out—not only of school, but the formal economy—and turning them into successful entrepreneurs, and a large number of students wanted to meet with me to ask, “How can I do something like that?” My advice usually resembled something like this: “Follow your passion and then ‘just do it.’ Don’t wait until everything seems ‘perfect’ because it never will be.” I think many students thought that advice was just a bunch of words, even though it was sound, since I’d studied lots of successful people who all said something similar. In fact, in many cases, former students have reappeared in my life as successful “social entrepreneurs,” telling me how, only after they’d followed that advice, they’d seen the wisdom in it. (Not my wisdom; the wisdom borne of others’ experiences.) In any case, I wrote this book as a more extended answer to these students’ questions and to anyone else grappling with these kinds of questions.

            This book, then, is an exploration of what some world-changing organizations are doing in the areas of poverty alleviation, health care, education, and the environment. It also discusses the activities of dozens of change agents who are leading the way, as well as delves into the lives of five individuals—from those just starting to “change the world” to a remarkable man who has been doing it for decades—so that you can see the very human side of these individuals as they make decisions, overcome their fears, and keep moving ahead even when circumstances change. And then I will tell you how we can create influence at the “society” level by harnessing, of all things, biological evolution.

            So, in many ways this book is a hybrid, and so am I. A little about me first: Along the way, I’ve studied psychology, computer science, music, artificial intelligence, personal development, and economic development. I’ve developed search engines, uncovered medical discoveries by having a computer “read” the medical literature, written a novel, and been inspired by creative innovators around the world. If you had a window onto one of my typical days, you might see me reading a book by Muhammad Yunus, watching World Cup soccer, creating a cool teaching simulation, riding my bike, or playing with a gadget that offers computing power to children in the developing world or advice to shoppers who truly want to “buy green.”

            Somehow, all these different interests have influenced me as a professor and shaped my curiosity and deep passion for understanding how to use business and related approaches to make the world a better place: we are all hybrids. And so is this book. When I decided to devote my teaching and scholarship to “base of the pyramid” business development and other innovative approaches for producing a better world, I imagined I was making a break with my past. I never suspected that my undergraduate studies in psychology would lead me to think about human drives—which, after all, we should understand to create change. Nor did I think that studying genetic algorithms as a graduate student in computer science would have any relevance to changing the world; but, as you’ll see, it presents a robust and profoundly useful perspective on how to accelerate and amplify societal change.