Redefine "change the world"

Past Issues

  • 2008-04-01

Most people associate “doing good” solely with charitable initiatives. But I would argue that we shouldn’t be so quick to separate the good that is generated by a successful business with the good that is generated by effective philanthropy. In my mind, the two are undeniably linked.

It’s no secret that my own success in business has allowed me to fund my considerable philanthropic work. In the same way, the smartest and most successful businesses are finding ways to use philanthropy not only to create social good but also to create an economic benefit for themselves. This win-win scenario allows strong businesses to grow even stronger and give back exponentially more.

One of my life goals is to encourage a re-definition of what “changing the world” really means. In my career, I have participated in financing about 400 start-ups. A few have failed brilliantly, while others have succeeded. Those start-ups, and the thousands like them around the country, are making a tremendous impact on the lives of the people who work for them and the communities in which they operate.

So when I talk to students, academics, or any other audience about opportunities for doing good, I tell them there are three ways to maximize the impact on communities, both locally and globally. A direct line to doing good involves three core competencies. I encourage everyone to study them and to keep studying them throughout their lives.

The first is entrepreneurship. Students at every stage of life are seeing that the real world offers opportunities, and they’re finding ways to connect their knowledge and passion with what the world needs. I have a beef with academia, which normally links entrepreneurial studies with small business. That’s a mistake. Entrepreneurship is way of thinking. Small business is simply how many entrepreneurs start. For example, when Murray Edwards built the Horizon Oilsands Project inside Canadian Natural Resources, he was being entrepreneurial. There was nothing “small business” about that process.

Unfortunately, entrepreneurial studies are usually confined to business schools, but the entrepreneurial process is relevant everywhere. A few years ago, I funded the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence (WCEE) at the University of Saskatchewan. The centre’s mandate is to inspire innovation and entrepreneurial thinking in all disciplines at the university. Students in every department are encouraged to find ways to connect their learning with entrepreneurial opportunities. So with a little inspiration, an art historian could become one of the next great gallery owners. The key is planting that seed early.

In fact, I believe we should start educating students as young as Grade 3 in the entrepreneurial mindset to help them grasp at an early age what they have the potential to achieve. I believe the study of entrepreneurship can be done in an age-appropriate way in Grades 3 through 12 and should be part of the core curriculum in all schools.

Second, I believe that everyone should study philanthropy. The first thing students need to understand is that investing in their community isn’t an expense but a true investment. Schools and universities can help change that perception. We need to ask students such important questions as what’s working? What’s not working? What else can we do? What sort of effort should you put into philanthropy? What should you expect in return? By making philanthropy part of the core curriculum, we’ll be able to introduce every student to this concept.

Third, no matter what their calling, every student must understand marketing. Whether you’re a dentist or an employee at an oil and gas company, everyone needs to market themselves and their ideas. I made my fortune as an engineer working in finance, but it was my knowledge of and passion for marketing that made the difference. Much of my philanthropic success has resulted from a marketing mindset. I often refer to myself as an entrepreneurial philanthropist, someone who applies marketing approaches to my charitable work. In a significant way, marketing levers the impact of both business and philanthropic pursuits. That’s why it’s so valuable.

The first group of students who graduate having learned about entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and marketing will be on their way to becoming leaders. But until this happens, we’re not going to change the quality of student that our education systems are currently producing. I can even see combining these three subjects into a mandatory class called Changing the World. After all, when you’re doing good, you’re changing the world.
 

Brett Wilson is a renowned businessperson, the author of Redefining Success, and an innovative philanthropist. You can follow him on Twitter @wbrettwilson.  

 

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