I love entrepreneurs. One of the great benefits of my work is engaging with the creative, can-do, positive energy of social entrepreneurs – a daily dose of hope! Ten years ago, before entrepreneurship had the cultural and economic development cache it now enjoys, I recall talking to a colleague about how we could frame entrepreneurs as heroes to better capture the public’s imagination and garner more support resources. Fast forward to today, where that notion may be a real problem, especially in social entrepreneurship, as Daniela Papi-Thornton articulates so well in Tackling Heropreneurship. [1]

Papi-Thornton defines a Heropreneur as a

“founder who is greatly admired, as if a hero, and viewed as the main actor in social progress.”

In the context of our celebrity-focused culture, a business world that stresses the importance of “building your brand,” and the proliferation of social entrepreneurship business plan competitions and prizes, we are increasingly sending the message that being the innovative founder is the measure of impact success.

This cult of personality can lead to “a proliferation of repeated and disjointed efforts and too few people looking to join and grow the best organisations [sic].” By valuing innovation over experience, it also undermines the importance of a deep understanding of the problem, with all its complexities, to the development of a real, sustainable solution.

Of course, having many ideas bubbling is important to developing effective innovation, but only if those that don’t pan out are allowed to fail and inform other ventures, and allow resources to be redirected. A real concern of mine is that the social entrepreneurship space has not yet fully embraced the value of failure. I suspect our field may be more inclined than the mainstream to continue supporting ventures that are not making progress, due to passion for the mission and desire to support an inspiring entrepreneur.

So how should we respond? Papi-Thornton encourages educators, social impact funders, and training program designers to begin funding learning, such as apprenticeships, not just solutions; celebrate a broad range of social impact roles, not just the founders; and ask about a venture’s collaboration as much as its competition. How can early stage investors support a more holistic, thoughtful approach to leadership, company-building and sustainable social impact?

• Assess the entrepreneur’s own experience with the issue – has she lived the problem or worked with it extensively? Does she appreciate your tough questions or seem frustrated by them?

• Ask him about the leading organizations in the space – for-profit and non-profit - and what he learned from them or how he works with them. Be concerned if he is not familiar with them or is dismissive of their work.

• Ask the entrepreneur about her team and team-building approaches. How do the team members’ hard and soft skills complement each other? Look for an appreciation of the full team in building the company, and willingness to defer to team members in their area of expertise.

• Dig in on how the entrepreneur focuses his time. I am skeptical of entrepreneurs that seem to be on the speaking circuit or have an extensive list of prizes – these endeavors can be great strategies for attracting resources, but if perpetual can indicate a lack of attention to the hard work of business-building.

• Invest in community! Investors’ Circle’s members bring a wealth of sector or issue knowledge, business and financing experience, and awareness of other ventures and business models – all of which benefit the due diligence process. And it’s simply more fun!

[1] Papi-Thornton, Daniela. “Tackling Heropreneurship,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, February 23, 2016.