In Memory of Professor J. Gregory Dees, “Academic Father of Social Entrepreneurship”
We are deeply saddened to share that professor J. Gregory Dees passed away at the age of 63 following complications from illness. Greg was often referred to as the “father of social entrepreneurship,” a title he deserved but eschewed. He influenced countless of us with his seminal definition of the meaning of social entrepreneurship and enhanced the development of the field with his many articles, books, courses, and a continuous stream of conversations in classrooms, boardrooms, and stages. We are fortunate that Greg will live on in the work he produced and the connections he made. As one of our advisory board members, he provided insightful guidance and shared his knowledge at events for our Portland community. We hope you had the chance to meet him when he was here. Anyone who did was able to appreciate the brilliant, kind and humble man who stood with many collaborators behind the building of a field. We were introduced to Greg by his friend and our advisory board member, David Sawyer, who shares with all of us a deeper look at Greg and his meaning in our lives.
“Greg’s professional credentials were impeccable, but if you had the chance to know him, you’ll recall a gentle soul who was rather surprised to find himself at the forefront of an international movement. A former McKinsey consultant, Greg understood early on that blending business savvy and social good just made sense. He emerged as the leading scholar of social entrepreneurship, a radical idea at the time, ‘an idea whose time had come.’ He made sure the idea stuck.
Greg taught and launched programs at three of the leading business schools in the world: Harvard, Stanford, and Duke. He lectured all over the world, wrote several books, even led the social entrepreneurship effort at the World Economic Forum in Davos. When Impact Entrepreneurs took off at Portland State, he was right there, joining our Advisory Board, speaking at events, offering sage advice, cheering us on. Greg Dees was the Johnny Appleseed of social entrepreneurship.
I met Greg in Kentucky, where he was on sabbatical from Harvard Business School. Don Harker, the CEO of MACED (Mountain Association for Community Economic Development) basically threw down the gauntlet to Greg and said: ‘If you’re serious about all this, if this is more than just academic talk, then get out of your ivory tower and come to the coal fields of Appalachia.’ Greg picked up that gauntlet, spent a year in the mountains, refined his ideas, and observed first hand the heartbreaking poverty and hopelessness that characterize much of the region. But more importantly, Greg saw the incredible resilience and determination of the people, and never for a second looked down on anyone. Rather the opposite. He admired the mountain spirit, which is not surprising. Greg was a native Kentuckian himself, and he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Greg got it.
I was working with Greg on The Denali Initiative, a national training program for social entrepreneurs, at a defining moment in the evolution of the field, a moment where Greg showed prescience and courage. The field was becoming divided. A strong camp argued persuasively that the proper definition of social entrepreneurship applied only to nonprofit efforts with an earned revenue stream. Greg disagreed, and his “broad tent” definition of the field in 1998 proved to be crucial. The term “social enterprise” came into the lexicon after this, referring to both nonprofits with an earned revenue strategy, and to businesses with a social mission. But both were still examples of social entrepreneurship. From Greg’s perspective, the key was entrepreneurial thinking and practice, whatever the sector or economic model. Think how much poorer we would be if the noble efforts to make the world a better place, for-profit or not-for-profit, were not all understood as social entrepreneurship. Think Teach for America. gDiapers. World Pulse. Mercy Corps. The list is long.
One of the few times I saw fire in this gentle man was at a gathering of Social Venture Partners in Portland. I was the Executive Director at the time, and he was the speaker that night. One of the partners was testy when he asked Greg: ‘Why should we worry so much about scaling social impact efforts? Isn’t small beautiful?’ There was a fierceness in Greg’s voice and a light in his eyes when he said, ‘We have an absolute responsibility to scale what works. Social impact is about relieving the suffering of as many people as possible as quickly and intelligently as possible.’ The room stood still for a minute. I never forgot that.
Personally, I owe Greg more than you might imagine. Several times, when Greg was too busy to take an engagement, he suggested me in his place. We joked about that, me always being ‘the second choice.’ His recommendations alone were sufficient, and gigs that were way above my pay grade simply materialized. It is not an exaggeration to say that Greg deserves much of the credit for whatever success I’ve achieved. But I wasn’t special – many others could say the same.
I intend to pay Greg back: To carry on his legacy. To keep combining business savvy with social purpose. To never stop genuinely believing in people. To remain humble. To combine deep analysis with even deeper compassion. To strive, with every breath, to make our trembling world a better place.
I hope you too will help me carry on the noble legacy of this singular soul.”