Portrait of a Social Entrepreneur

I’ve been in Tanzania for four months now, volunteering at The Sega Girls’ School, and it’s been really interesting to observe Polly Dolan, the school founder and director, up close. Because I am naturally analytical, I’ve enjoyed trying to identify what about her is key to her success so far.

Polly Dolan

Polly Dolan

I used to teach Social Entrepreneurship, among other courses, at the Lorry I. Lokey Graduate School of Business at Mills College in Oakland. I always invited several guest speakers to come talk with my students so they could get a better sense of what kind of person chooses this route with all its challenges and benefits. However, this is the first time I have gotten such an in-depth view of a social entrepreneur in action and I’ve come up with six qualities that I believe are critical to her success.

Of course not all social entrepreneurs are the same and my list is informed by who Polly is but I’d wager that at least some of these are vital for anyone who hopes to found and lead a social enterprise.

1. Persistence
I think this must be the number one quality for anyone trying to get something done in a challenging environment. Polly had already been living and working in Africa for a decade when she decided to start something herself. This, too, is important as she had some idea of what she was getting into by trying to do a startup in East Africa. However, even knowing this, it still takes incredible perseverance.

Polly climbing up the water tower in her clogs

Polly climbing up the water tower in her clogs

Related to this is not being a perfectionist or obsessive about any one interim outcome. She knows that even if something doesn’t work well the first time around, she can improve it over time. It is an iterative process and she has the patience and perspective to simply keep on plugging.

2. Positive outlook
It helps a lot that Polly isn’t moody, negative, or cynical. She is human and has her ups and downs but overall has a very even and upbeat temperament. Since there are frustrations and disappointments at every turn in the road, this helps a lot. If criticism, delays, or failures got her down, it would be much harder for her to continue. She takes little personally and has a pragmatic, problem-solving attitude toward challenges.

3. Heart and Likeability
By “heart,” I mean that Polly really cares about others. Yesterday, we had a review of the school’s core values during the monthly staff meeting. My group was asked to go over the values of “Hope and Charity.” One of the questions was who within the school exemplified these goals and it was the group’s consensus that Polly did. From what I can tell, Polly is genuinely well liked by everyone with whom she interacts because of her empathy for others. I think most people realize how rare a quality this is and it makes them appreciate her all the more. Her integrity and empathy motivate others to share her vision partly because they want to support her.

4. Vision
While “the vision thing” sounds hackneyed to me having heard it so much in the leadership literature, I have to include it. Having a guiding image of what the end result will look like helps inform how Polly spends her time. She knows what she is trying to create and all of her energy goes toward that goal.

Polly speaking at the closing ceremony in December

Speaking at the closing ceremony in December

5. Hard Work and Single Mindedness
Polly works all the time. She does take time out to spend with her daughter and husband but that’s about it. Some of this is due to the lack of alternative activities in this particular community in Africa but a lot of it is simply by choice. Supporting this venture of hers is what interests and stimulates her the most. This evening, I saw her at the pool where everyone flocks at the end of the day and I asked her if she’d had a “restful Sunday.” Her response, delivered with a big smile, was that it had been wonderful because she’d gotten her inbox down to 26 emails and that, to her, is a great day.

6. Supportive Spouse and Family

John, Martha, and Polly

John, Martha, and Polly

Polly would not have been successful so quickly if it weren’t for the support of her husband, John, and her sister, Tracey. John is here with Polly in Tanzania. In fact, he is from Southern Africa and their meeting in Uganda years ago is one reason she has stayed. John has his own business so he can work from home and thus he spends a lot of time with their daughter, Martha.  While Polly has the occasional bout of guilt characteristic of most modern, working mothers, she knows that Martha is in good hands with dad when she must attend to Sega business. And back in the US, Polly’s sister Tracey has led the charge to build a strong, functional US board (there is also one here in TZ) that has made the Sega dream a reality by building a US donor network and providing helpful oversight.

So, that’s my analysis of Polly, social entrepreneur extraordinaire and all-round lovely person making the world a better place one student at a time. It’s a privilege to get to contribute to the growth and development of Sega and to work with the woman who has made it all come together. Go Polly!


6 thoughts on “Portrait of a Social Entrepreneur

  1. Love this post. It’s an insightful perspective that tells us not only about Polly, but about your expertise as well, which I’m sure is being put to great use at Sega!

  2. Love reading your posts, April. It helps me to realize that there is life outside of my world – which by comparision seems very narrow indeed! I continue to be amazed and proud of all YOU are doing!

  3. April, loved this one! It reminded me of Lucas with his non profit diabetic sports camp (DASH) and of Dave with our foundation in Bali (Ahimsa in Action). Thank you for such thoughtful blogs. You are inspiring! Best, Felicity

  4. This is a very inspiring woman that you are writing about and good to hear what it takes to make things possible. I liked reading it and it seem like it has been an interesting experience to be around this kind of personality. Thanks for sharing this with us.
    Hermann, the Icelander

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