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Agents of Change

Roberto Velez used to work nights cleaning jets at JFK Airport. The work was hard, but he didn’t have much hope of a better job. He didn’t have skills, education or even the self-confidence or know-how to pursue something more promising.

When he heard about a program called Year Up that provides intensive training to young adults followed by an internship, and usually a job offer, he allowed himself to imagine other possibilities for his life. He could afford to dream.

His flawless stint with Year Up landed him a fulltime job on Wall Street with Merrill Lynch where he makes three or four times what he previously earned. And he has a future.

Recently, Velez, now 22, was caught by surprise when a colleague complimented his attire, saying, “You look like you’re from a well-groomed family.”

“I’m not,” Velez says. “To be honest, I don’t know my parents. My grandmother, she doesn’t speak much English. I haven’t seen my mother for about 12 years, and my father has been in and out of the criminal environment. I haven’t had a chance to meet them for more than a couple minutes. I basically came from nothing to something.”

Roberto Velez’s success results from a growing trend toward social entrepreneurship—a movement employing business acumen and the entrepreneurial spirit to transform society in ways not seen before. Social entrepreneurs aren’t focused on profit and return, but rather on doing good—particularly, helping people help themselves, instead of getting handouts.

David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, says many indicators show a rise in social entrepreneurship—that is, individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. Less than 10 years ago, very few schools taught social entrepreneurship. “Today, there are hundreds just in the U.S. alone,” Bornstein says.

When Bornstein today gives talks at major universities, 500 students may crowd together and spill into an overfl ow room. Contrast that with a decade ago, when maybe 20 showed up. “I’d be like, ‘Where is everybody?’” Bornstein says.

Lots of factors are driving this rising spirit. “More people today have the freedom, time, wealth, health, exposure, social mobility and confidence to address social problems in bold new ways,” Bornstein writes in his book. Plus, communications technologies make global inequities more visible than ever, and there’s a growing conviction that governments are failing to solve global problems. So, he writes, “people recognize that change is urgently needed.”

Examples of the trend are getting easier to find. “There are so many stories of business people who are really thinking creatively,” Bornstein says.

“I can’t even begin to show my appreciation,” Velez says. “I didn’t have a bank account. I had no idea how an office environment works. Now I have a couple of banking accounts. I’m thinking about my 401(K).”

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