The 5 best social entrepreneurship books of the decade

This post explores five books that every social entrepreneur should read. None of these books is a technical description of social entrepreneurship because ultimately we believe that all business can and should be primarily about benefiting society (though sadly it isn't). Instead, they are inspiring books from business leaders who care more about social impact than financial return. 

While it's easy to dismiss business books as not holding value for wider society, they address challenges faced by organisations of all shapes and sizes and no organisation leader will regret picking them up! 

1. Zero to One, Peter Thiel


This book is the best manifesto for social entrepreneurship I have ever read. The author, Peter Thiel, who is best known as a co-founder of Paypal and the first outside investor in Facebook, makes a compelling case for why businesses should aggressively seek out paradigm-changing breakthroughs that bring with them massive social change.

We should not believe the pervading wisdom that the earth shaking progress of the industrial revolution and internet revolution are behind us and there are no major discoveries left.

I'm sure he would not pigeon hole himself as a 'social entrepreneur' and he is a million miles away from the 'social enterprise' subculture, but this book is all about delivering 10x the value proposition of your competitors and thereby disrupting the market. If this isn't social enterprise I don't know what is.

As the hugely respected management theorist Peter Drucker so eloquently said, "profit is not the purpose of business", and this book is great depiction of what it should be about. 

2. The Lean Start Up, Eric Ries


This book stands in sharp contrast the my no. 1 recommendation above, but is nevertheless a brilliant book.

Using theory and case studies Ries explores a number of concepts that have quickly taken root in the startup culture of Silicon Valley and farther afield.

The central concept is the creation of short feedback loops that provide a framework for iterative innovation. Each loop consists of three stages: build, measure and learn. The ideal is to move through all three stages as quickly as possible and to do this you should build as little as you can get away with: the 'minimum viable product'. 

While Peter Thiel will push you to think big, this book is about creating something new through many micro-stages.

It is full of practically applicable ideas and the application of these ideas outside of the business world - to starting a charity, international development, etc.- is immediately obvious. 

3. The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz


This book is more a biography than a business book. Very well written (and equally well narrated if you want to check out the audio book version), it tells Horowitz's story of early engagement in Silicon Valley.

The book is refreshingly light on platitudes and its premise is that achieving anything in business (or elsewhere) is hard and that what really matters is how you deal with the challenges and difficulties along the way.

Horowitz' story is firmly embedded in the world of technical innovation between 1990 and 2010, so will appeal most to those with an interest in such areas, but even if that's not your thing it's a compelling read. 

4. How Google Works, Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg


Google has totally changed the way the world works. If you are in any way interested in the world around you, and particularly if you have any ambition to change it, then the story of Google is relevant to you.

This is a story of unrelenting pursuit of innovation and as such I found it both fascinating and inspiring. The book captures lessons learned by Schmidt and Rosenberg while running Google, and is based on the internal training they developed to continue and enhance Google's distinctive ethos.

It's packed with interesting annecdotes but also systematically covers issues around attracting talent, maintaining ethos and encouraging continuous innovation. Somehow Schmidt and Rosenburg even manage to tell their story with humility!

5. Antifragile, Nassim Nicolas Taleb 


Taleb is much more a thinker than a business person and as such this book has a distinctly different feel to the ones I've mentioned above. For a start, it is conceptually much more complex and will take a bit more work to digest.

However, don't let this put you off because while Taleb may not guide you directly to the practical application of his ideas, I found that it had a profound impact on my thinking in a way that was inescapably practical. 

The premise of Antifragile is all in the subtitle, 'Things That Gain From Disorder'. Taleb posits that we are missing a word from our vocabulary and we mistakenly think that the opposite of 'fragile' is 'robust'. He points out that while fragile things suffer from disorder, robust things remain static in the face of disorder. Rather than robustness, Taleb is interested in things in the world that gain from disorder.

In fact, Taleb sees this everywhere, from the human body to the cut-throat competition of the free-market economy. He suggests that in many areas we have developed an unhelpful obsession with 'robustness', for example in our protection of large banking institutions. Instead, we should understand and embrace the concept of antifragility. 

Are you pursuing robustness through trying to build a life, business or charity that remains stable in the face of inevitable stressors?

If so this book will challenge you to think differently about stress as a necessary (and in fact helpful) part of a more organic, more 'antifragile' way of being. 

If this post inspires you to read any of these books, I'd love to know! Comment below and share your thoughts. 


6 January 2015
Andy Pearson