September 10, 2019
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6 unconventional books that will inspire social entrepreneurs

We asked social entrepreneurs of various backgrounds—from a restaurateur to a teacher—to tell us which books have inspired them. Here's what they said.

What's on your bookshelf that inspires you in your work? Photo by Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

Inspiration hits you when you least expect it. You could be alone with your thoughts, in a crowded lecture hall, or with close friends. We wanted to know learn a little more about what makes social entrepreneurs tick, so we asked a few who we’ve featured on The Renewal Project to share the wisdom that’s inspired them. What better place to look than a book?

Here are a few books they recommend—from a classic American tale to a feminist credo. These books might not be the first that come to mind for launching a social venture, but, like moments of inspiration itself, they will surprise you!

The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

This book showcases the best and worst examples of how capital affects humankind. From the cynical salesmen who dupe impoverished farmers into buying overpriced jalopies, to the sharing economy of the workers’ camps. (Says Ma Joad, “If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help—the only ones.”) The end of the book is sad, beautiful, and inspiring, reminding us that anyone can make a difference, no matter who, no matter where, and no matter what.

The $100 Startup, by Chris Guillebeau

Though it’s not explicitly about social ventures, Guillebeau convinced me that you don’t need deep pockets to start being an entrepreneur of any kind. Through case studies, research-based techniques, and helpful practice tips, the book is an optimistic reaction to the question, “Yeah I have an idea of a [social] enterprise, but can I actually do this?” Guillebeau’s answer? “Sure you can.” The book’s “why not try it?” attitude helps take the pressure off those who are looking to dip their toes in the water but not jump in headfirst.

— Recommended by Aaron Sitze, Social Entrepreneurship teacher at Oregon High School in Oregon, Illinois

Creative Confidence, by Tom and David Kelley

In order to tackle the greatest social and environmental challenges of our time, our world needs as much creativity as we can harness. In fact, we know age-old solutions simply won’t work … because they haven’t yet. Change takes creativity and, despite what many people believe, creativity is a skill that can be taught.

Change takes creativity and, despite what many people believe, creativity is a skill that can be taught. — Erin Houston, Co-founder of Wearwell

This book influenced our founding team at Wearwell to think of business models not yet tried to influence change in the fashion industry and make it easier for people to shop for ethically and sustainably made clothing. It also guided us through testing those ideas to figure out which potential solutions really could have the outcomes to drive big impact. Whether you’re a social entrepreneur, an inventor, or a leader of a nonprofit, this guide by the founders of IDEO is a must-read for you and your whole team.

Recommended by Erin Houston, Co-founder of Wearwell

A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

When a former colleague suggested I read this book. The title alone had me hooked even before I had a copy in my hands. At a high level, this is a book about sparking innovative ideas. Berger guides readers through the process of crafting rich, thought-provoking questions using stories and anecdotes from folks who have taken it upon themselves to get to the root of the “why” behind some of society’s most challenging problems. And while I regularly find the contents of this book useful in my day-to-day working with entrepreneurs, I found the approach to generating great questions equally as beneficial in my personal life—an anecdote to small talk in a day and age where we can all use a bit more empathy for the world around us.

Recommended by Matt Zwiebel, Executive Director of Pledge 1% Colorado

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper

As a Black male educator, I want to continue to think about the ways in which I make any educational space that I lead a safe space for all students, especially young Black girls. Brittney Cooper’s rage is indeed eloquent—her words keep us all honest and accountable, but also reminds women that they don’t have to settle for less. I strongly encourage everyone, especially men, to think about the ways that we celebrate and advocate for Black girls because it is too often that American society doesn’t.

Recommended by Lamar Shambley, founder of Teens of Color Abroad

Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich

An intergenerational saga of an Ojibwa family in the Midwest, Love Medicine immersed me in characters and a landscape beyond the limits of my imagination. Erdrich introduced a group of people and their homeland so vividly that, by the end of the novel, they were as familiar to me as my own family and our backyard. Our nation is so often divided by external markers of “tribe”—race, class, orientation—and the ongoing trauma of our history with this land and its residents … native, immigrant, colonizer, enslaved, the whole lot of us. The way Erdrich highlights the harsh history of what we call America is the bones of the story; Love Medicine’s marrow, though, is the unparalleled strength of the human spirit.

Recommended by Caitlin Cullen, owner of The Tandem in Milwaukee

The Renewal Project

The Renewal Project, made possible by Allstate, tells the stories of individuals and organizations who are solving problems in their communities.