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BOOK REVIEW: “The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World” by John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan

Posted by dbuhrau on August 1, 2008

As the title suggests, this book is a guide to thinking outside of the business box. This paradox of offering a structure to unconventional thinking is actually accomplished quite successfully by authors Elkington and Hartigan, sustainability and entrepreneurial experts. This book outlines and analyzes how “unreasonable” social entrepreneurs get started, build their success, and even touches briefly on potential downfalls, citing examples all along the way. This comprehensive book discusses individuals and groups throughout the world with work ranging from medical services to dairy farms, from clean energy to low-priced computers.

The authors open with a discussion of specific characteristics common to a successful, unreasonable social entrepreneur. The introduction attempts a full explanation of why “unreasonable” is the correct descriptor, with characteristics including being propelled by emotion and a good sense of risk and opportunity. This is a thorough analysis of an unreasonable person.

Next, the authors move to the business side and outline three company models where social entrepreneurs would work. They start with the discussion of the leveraged non-profit model, which deals with public goods being delivered to those in need. They move on to describe the hybrid nonprofit model, a more experimental entity that tends to access an underserved market with a long-term opportunity for profit. Finally they discuss the social businesses that are for-profit companies with social missions. These groups have an easier time getting mainstream partners, but it is often hard to replicate their results in another company because of the inherent altruism that drives these businesses. Elkington and Hartigan offer Wholefoods as a prominent example of this business model, as they operate to make a profit selling organic and local food.

The book then transforms into a guide for launching businesses based on the aforementioned models. The authors detail sources of funding from family money to selling-out, and they describe how to watch for market opportunities. They offer suggestions on how to set these entrepreneurial ideas into action, and further describe “bonsai” or alternative consumers who, through no fault of their own, have not been given the opportunity to grow to their full potential. The next chapter discusses scaling these businesses, and really shows how to think about an enterprise as part of the whole world, beyond the limited scope of what one can see from the inside.

This book does an excellent job of citing examples of incredibly driven people who have followed their hearts to success, be it financial, social, environmental, or all three. For someone on the path towards making a difference in the world, this book is a great resource. It motivates the reader towards action and reads like a handbook with regards to following through.

In the same regard, however, if you are not in a position to start a company that will change the world, this book can be frustrating. Reading example after example of extraordinary individuals who have succeeded against all odds can highlight the readers’ lack of accomplishment. Therefore, SSC recommends this book to businesses or individuals of all sizes and disciplines, which are on their way towards solving some of this planet’s problems, need motivation to continue with their business ideas, or who seek details of how to overcome hurtles that they have faced. As a casual read for someone not in one of these positions, this book provides great examples of different businesses, but the guiding elements are lost on this reader.

This book review comes from Claire Miziolek, one of SSC’s 2008 summer interns.

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