The most successful people – the smartest, most talented, maybe the richest, or the most motivated – fall on the right end of a standard bell curve. While the bulk of society falls within predictable standard deviations from the middle, those on the right tail are the best of the best, the small percentage that exceed statistical expectations.
In Taiwan, the right tail, or at least the right side of the bell curve, would have very distinct qualities: the best students go to National Taiwan University (or another National university), and then join the government or a large company. There is a distinct view of what success means, and it is closely tied to grades in school, how many languages you speak, and the number of sports, “hobbies” or musical instruments you play. However, none of these qualities are fundamentally tied to success in entrepreneurship or social innovation – they fail to capture the “try and fail” mentality, the persistence that defines an individual’s ability to not just be at the right end of the tail, but move it forward.
To whom much is given, much is expected; however, the status quo fails to empower the type of mentality or skills that will sustain growth and prosperity in the local economy. This is evidenced by the struggle of Taiwanese companies to innovate (and their competitive lag) and the growing number of students leaving the island, in search of opportunities, challenges, and prestige they aren’t currently finding here. In short, they need a push in the right (pun intended) direction to not only move the economy here forward, but keep it from falling to the left. Taiwan is making some solid efforts on the entrepreneurship front: there are several incubators in Taipei offering seed financing and other services to would-be entrepreneurs.
However, aside from keeping talented people out of large corporations, it also seems to be encouraging hobby entrepreneurship as companies pivot and restart, failing to really fail their businesses, while still seeing funding continue. While I applaud these efforts and certainly see their value, there is also a case to be made for clustering resources: just like the 20/80 rule, very few of the businesses generate the most returns in any economy. Identifying and leveraging those growth potentials will help Taiwan get out of start-up and move into scale-up as part of its effort to move the economy forward.
The same lesson can also be applied to help social entrepreneurs on the island: currently, it’s hard to be anything but small. Many purpose-driven organizations run on passion alone, and face difficulty in systematizing their delivery of public value. There is a major gap between their entrepreneurial ambitions and the resources that could help perfect operations, attract talent, and expand their delivery of social value. More than tax codes and government support, it’s a system wide gap between the needs of entrepreneurs for resources of all types, and a system that continues to privilege the current version of success.
Of course there is a right tail of entrepreneurs and social innovators – there are lots of businesses, people and organizations making big impact. We just need to find a better way to push them, and all the people their work impacts, to the right.
This article first appeared in the Social Innovation Research Group December newsletter.
She has lived and worked in Denmark and Bangladesh - two global hot spots for social innovation - and has worked for Toronto-based social enterprise Social Capital Partners. Active in youth entrepreneurship, she has been on the founding team of three social organizations, and has produced a documentary on Taiwanese political identity. Melinda recently graduated from The Next 36: Canada's Entrepreneurial Institute, and the University of Toronto, Trinity College, where she studied International Relations.
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