Social entrepreneurship has given me, and many others, a great deal of hope. With the overwhelming number of social ills in virtually every sector of our society, it is heartening to see the growth of a movement that combines the discipline, rigor, flexibility, and innovation of the entrepreneurial business sector with the core mission of delivering social value above all else, including wealth creation. The movement, in part, challenges innovators to ask, how can we better meet the enormous challenges of the world around us, or, how can we better serve? The Dalai Lama, in his brilliant work “Ethics in a New Millennium,” postulates that the most basic truth which binds all humans together is our shared wish to be happy and to avoid suffering. He notes that this desire knows no bounds and that everything that we do, both as individuals and at the level of society, can be understood in terms of this fundamental aspiration.
Our universal desire to avoid suffering and to be happy is a starting point for establishing ethical principles. At its most basic, an ethical act is one that does not harm. A social mission, by definition, promotes happiness or addresses some aspect of culture that is harmful. In this way, social entrepreneurship is a gesture of ethics, an attempt to eradicate suffering and increase happiness. Implicit in this model is a recognition that that which is self serving leads to suffering.
With this as a starting point, we can understand the importance of cultivating our capacity to recognize the suffering of others. This recognition comes through empathy. The Dalai Lama notes that our innate capacity for empathy is the source of our most precious human quality, called “nying je” in the Tibetan language, and roughly translated as compassion. Empathy is a gateway to compassion, our inner tuning fork that allows us to perceive the inner state of others. Compassion is a deeper and more comprehensive construct, encompassing such virtues as love, humility, kindness, gentleness, generosity, and an innate awareness that all of existence is intricately interconnected. Compassion is the bedrock of our capacity to serve.