You don’t have to sit through a year-long lecture series on Social Entrepreneurship 101 to divine its basic teachings. Ask any would-be world-changer how to launch a venture, and you’ll likely get the same answer:
Identify a problem. Await your brain’s proverbial lightning strike, and craft a solution – ideally, one that’s never been done before (remember where you were at the time of said lightning strike, as this will henceforth be known as your “ah-ha moment”.) Write your business plan, outlining in precise detail where you will be in six months, one year, and five years. Build a website. Identify your Board of Directors and immediately apply for your 501(c)(3). Meticulously account for everything that could go wrong, and preempt it. Perfect your elevator pitch. Wow us with why you’re the ideal person to lead this work. Now cross your fingers, and hope that by the time you’ve completed Steps 1-17, your idea is still relevant.
The story of Molly Barker suggests we may have it all wrong.
Molly is the founder of Girls on the Run, an organization that combines a powerful curriculum designed to boost girls’ self-esteem and social and emotional health, with training for a 5K. This past year, Girls on the Run worked with 120,000 girls, powered by 47,000 volunteers in 202 cities.
Molly began running at the age of fifteen, discovering as her feet hit the pavement a rare and welcome escape from the insecurities, self-doubt, and perpetual fears of not being good enough, which together comprise what she calls the “Girl Box.” She kept running, and went on to become an elite cyclist and four-time Ironman triathlete.
But the insecurities didn’t go away. On a sunset run one evening, after years of alcohol abuse and questioning her self-worth, Molly came upon the initial seed for Girls on the Run: a vehicle to help girls ages eight to thirteen stay true to themselves in spite of the messages they receive from the media and the outside world.
The idea “marinated,” she says, and it was three years before she piloted the program with the first group of thirteen girls. She didn’t wait until the idea was fully baked. She had a vision and mission statement, and a set of core values. In that first pilot, she knew roughly what subjects she would cover, but she wrote the curriculum as she went along, basing each subsequent lesson off of what happened during the one before it. She involved the girls in the process, asking what worked for them, and what they would do differently.
Demand grew. Those thirteen girls became twenty-six, then seventy-five, and so on. It wasn’t until 2000 that Girls on the Run officially became a 501(c)(3). By then, she had amassed enough of a following that its future was not in doubt.
A Charlotte native, Molly has a friendly Southern twang that she doesn’t attempt to hide. She’s prone to using words like “love,” whether she’s speaking with a funder or an 8-year-old, and when she gives hugs – which she does frequently – they’re the kind that fully envelope you: the ones you typically share with a close friend, or your mom. And for all the hype around authenticity, you instinctively know she’s not doing it because she read about it in a book somewhere.
Her willingness to acknowledge her lingering self-doubts, to stray off script, and to relinquish control – far from being liabilities – are the very reasons she’s been so successful.
“The moment I think I know everything is the moment I begin to worry,” she says. Rather than fake it, she advises, lead with your weaknesses, inviting others to contribute what they’re good at.
Today, Molly is an Ashoka Fellow and a globally recognized leader in girls’ education and development. Girls on the Run is now in its 16th year, and by the end of this year, the organization will have worked with more than a half-million girls in the US and Canada.
Perhaps it’s time to rewrite the handbook for world change.
Five Tips for Start-up Social Entrepreneurs
- Let it out of the closet. Molly recalls the first time she mentioned the idea to a friend, turning what had been a private idea into something real. It was that initial validation that gave her the motivation and confidence to move the idea into action.
- Find an objective listener. Whether it’s a mentor, a counselor, or a friend, having an outsider to speak with is critically important, she says.
- Empathize. Molly makes no attempt to impress. She is the same person whoever she’s with; when she’s nervous, she says so, and when she doesn’t know the answer, she says that too. It’s that honesty—combined with an extraordinary ability to silence distractions and listen fully to whomever she’s speaking with—that makes her deeply relatable, and capable of bringing people together around a common vision. “Everybody behind a table has experienced self-doubt and fear, and on a human level, we’re all yearning for connections,” she explains.
- Create a metaphor. From the very beginning, Molly used the image of being trapped within the Girl Box to describe what Girls on the Run was doing. “It was vague enough that a father could understand it for his daughter, and a professional woman could understand it and choose to volunteer.”
- Don’t run away from your fears. “Any time there’s a period of fear or tension, I can rest confidently in that, knowing with complete certainty that it’s not going to last forever, and that on the other side is unbelievable growth.”