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 / Spring 2012 / Issue 66(originally published by Booz & Company)


Linda Rottenberg’s High-Impact Endeavor

Pioneering Social Entrepreneurship

Rottenberg grew up in the leafy Boston suburb of Newton, Mass., the daughter of a lawyer and a homemaker. Her family was supportive and stable — she credits them with giving her “the confidence to be curious” — but Rottenberg realized early on that she itched for a less-conventional kind of life. She also developed a passion for social activism. “I was one of those crazy people who felt entrepreneurial, but with a social bent,” she says. “I never started the proverbial lemonade stand, but I started cause-related organizations.”

At 18, she headed a few miles down the Charles River to Harvard, where she surrounded herself with expatriates and declared a concentration in social studies, a field she says taught her “to care about the world and think holistically about problems.” It was there that she discovered the work of Joseph Schumpeter, the Austrian economist who argued that a nation’s “fiery spirits,” or entrepreneurs, are its most powerful economic change agents, responsible for the “creative destruction” that generates long-term, sustainable growth. Rottenberg was riveted. She began to believe that she could be part of a “generation of innovation,” finding creative solutions to problems on both a local and a global scale.

As the head of the ill-fated Harvard Students for Dukakis/Bentsen organization, she carried campaign signs and hosted debate-watching parties. She also became Harvard’s first campus recruiter for the nonprofit Teach for America, which trains college students to teach in low-income communities across the United States. Teach for America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp remembers Rottenberg — whom she today hails as a “role model in international social entrepreneurship” — as “a leader who inspired top students to channel their energy in this direction before anyone had ever heard of Teach for America.”

As graduation approached, Rottenberg wondered how she could leverage her desire for creative destruction into a career. Viewing nonprofits as maddeningly inefficient and slow, she decided to go to law school, where she could study the legal framework for policy. “In retrospect, today I probably would have gone to business school,” she says. “At the time, though, there wasn’t much on entrepreneurship — it was the late 1980s, and it was Wall Street or bust.” Instead, she headed to Yale Law School, which had a reputation as an incubator of policy thinkers and leaders.

Yet once she was there, Rottenberg, who had always thought of herself as someone who was “excited by everything,” felt uninspired. She concluded that she didn’t belong in law, or in corporate America. Like many people in their 20s, she was searching for direction and meaning.

Eventually, she found that direction in one of her childhood passions. From an early age, Rottenberg had been captivated by Latin America. “My earliest pen pal was Uruguayan,” she recalls with a smile, “and everyone always thought I was Latina. Then I spent time in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, and I just fell in love.”

So after graduating from Yale Law in 1994, Rottenberg accepted a job managing the Yale–USAID interdisciplinary law program at Argentina’s Universidad de Palermo. Although the work was interesting, she yearned for something more entrepreneurial.

Rottenberg found an outlet for her ideas in 1996 when she discovered Ashoka, a nonprofit organization that was pioneering a microfinance model in Brazil and Mexico. By leveraging the power of entrepreneurship to create a shift in the status quo, Ashoka pioneered the kind of approach that Rottenberg would eventually adopt with Endeavor. The organization made grants of $50 or $100 to poor people, who could use the money to buy a sewing machine or a calf and begin selling dresses or cheese. The proceeds from those sales may not have been huge, but they provided such basics as food, clothing, shelter, and medicine for the sellers — and slowly helped to lift communities out of poverty. Liking what she saw, Rottenberg began working to expand Ashoka’s reach in Latin America. Bill Drayton, Ashoka’s founder and CEO, remembers her as “one of the world’s truly original people — passionate and practical, focused on the globe and individuals, engaged in business and society.”

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  1. Thomas Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005): Bestseller that describes the context of globalization in which Endeavor emerged, including an account of Rottenberg’s work.
  2. C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid,” s+b, First Quarter 2002: Seminal article by the late globalization expert and management thinker on business opportunities in the developing world.
  3. Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (Basic Books, 2000): A classic analysis of the cultural and institutional impediments to entrepreneurship in the developing world.
  4. Endeavor’s website: Features case studies, statistics, a blog, and more.
  5. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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