DISRUPTING THE STATUS QUO
by Kait Smith Lanthier | July 5, 2017
You’ve heard the adages, seen the inspirational quotes: same old thinking, same old results. There ought to be a better way than the way it always has been done.
Beyond the axioms, however, are real-life examples of leaders challenging traditional models of doing business, using entrepreneurship to reshape and reimagine the communities—and the world—we live in. Leaders such as Rosanne Haggerty and Michael Sorrell, recipients of the 2017 Social Innovator Awards from the Lewis Institute of Social Innovation at Babson College.
Both Sorrell and Haggerty have challenged traditional approaches in their industries to radically improve the approach to and the outcomes of the work they do. Their positive disruption of higher education and addressing homelessness (respectively) are models for using Entrepreneurial Thought & Action® to inspire systemic change and prove that these problems aren’t permanent—they’re solvable.
Finding the Solution to Chronic Homelessness
Inspired by her parents—“I grew up in a family of taking action.”—Rosanne Haggerty has spent her career developing innovative strategies to end homelessness and the conditions that create it. As president and CEO of Community Solutions, Haggerty takes an entrepreneurial approach to the task at hand. She helps communities become problem solvers “so they can fix the expensive, badly designed systems that our most vulnerable neighbors rely on every day.”
Though Haggerty has spent 20 years addressing homelessness, her approach with Community Solutions represents a pivot from her previous work. Before, the focus was on providing affordable housing. But, an encounter with a homeless woman in New York City provided new insight into the problem, and inspired the creation of Community Solutions. And, it’s working; in just six years, the company’s community-based approach has helped house more than 170,000 people experiencing chronic homelessness.
Do you classify yourself as an entrepreneur?
“For many years, I saw myself as a problem solver. My mentors told me I think differently than most people in my field; I’m drawn to people who are constantly iterating, experimenting. It wasn’t an aha moment that led me to call myself an entrepreneur, but more coming to grips with the fact that I identified more with people who shared an improvement mindset.”
When did you know it was time to evolve your strategy and create Community Solutions?
“Like many entrepreneurs, I had a successful product. That can blind you to the fact that there needs to be a next step. That realization was punctuated by an encounter with a homeless woman I had seen on the street for many years. She was in the hospital, and—to my surprise—listed me as her next of kin. She had refused help on the street because people were offering her blankets, rides to shelters. What she wanted was help moving into housing. That made me think—what if it’s our behavior that’s too narrow? You can’t understand success without looking at the system as a whole. Our program, though successful, was a very incomplete response to the larger problem we had set out to solve.”
What can entrepreneurs looking to disrupt or reimagine a traditional model learn from Community Solutions’ work?
“The way we have learned to work a problem. The hard end or hardest part of a problem is the most fruitful place to start and ultimately get to a better outcome. Then, it’s about iterating ideas, employing tools that unlock creativity and nonlinear thinking. Continue to measure. Set short-term goals and be rigorous around continuing to step up your game and improve your way to different outcomes. Freedom to experiment and hold a team accountable for progress is the final step in our innovation methodology. Having short-term goals and measurable targets restores a sense of urgency to the issue that’s too often lost.”
Breathing New Life into the College Experience
In 2007, Michael Sorrell’s life looked different than it does today. At the time, he was part of a group negotiating the purchase of an NBA franchise, preparing to take the reins as president if the deal closed. So, when he got a call to step in as temporary president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black university on the brink of closure, he anticipated a short-term stint to help set the institution back on the right track.
So he demolished 15 abandoned buildings on campus. He turned the football field into the “We Over Me Farm” (pictured at top). He restructured the curriculum. And, in the process, he fell in love with the work and the school. Now, 10 years later, Paul Quinn College has undergone a stunning turnaround under his leadership. A pioneer of what he calls the “New Urban College Model,” Sorrell has turned the school into one of the most innovative small colleges in America by focusing on academic rigor, experiential learning, and entrepreneurship. All while making the experience more affordable and enriching for students.
When you took over, Paul Quinn College was on the verge of closing its doors. How did that impact your work?
“The challenges were considerable, but they were also like a puzzle, which appealed to me. Conventionality had failed, so we embraced Entrepreneurial Thought & Action as the way forward. The beauty for me is that entrepreneurship gives you a unique advantage in under-resourced communities. It’s not about finding ways to build from splendor or surplus; it’s about finding a way to fill a need.”
You’re on a first-name basis with your students. Why is that important to you and what you’re accomplishing at Paul Quinn?
“Our students have no experience with the corridors of power. I want to demystify the process of success for them, want them to see you can be normal. Some of that requires me letting them into my life, telling my personal story—when I’ve messed up, when I’ve been vulnerable. None of us are perfect from day one. And, yes, I was born into a different set of circumstances, but my father wasn’t. In one generation, entrepreneurship took my family from a father who never went to college to a son who runs one. These stories are important.”
If other educators are looking to replicate your model, what advice would you have for them?
“Be committed to it. We didn’t get to this place through happenstance. We planned, we researched. You have to understand the commitment necessary for a program like this to be successful. Be comfortable with dissent. You’re changing something significantly. Be secure enough with yourself that you hear constructive criticism and not be devastated by it.”
Featured Photo Credit: Paul Quinn College
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- Meet the Woman Who Thinks She's Found the Solution to Ending Homelessness (Mic)
- For Even the Neediest, Housing is the Solution to Homelessness (New York Times)
- More Needed to End Homelessness Than a Home (SF Chronicle)
- Bringing a College Back from the Brink (The Atlantic)
- Michael Sorrell Revived Paul Quinn College (and Almost Died Doing It) (Dallas Observer)