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By Anita Nowak

Academic Associate

McGill University

Social Entrepreneurship 101

Anita Nowak.png

My path to this topic...

Half a lifetime ago, I dreamed of being a high-powered advertising executive. I wanted a fast-paced career, complete with high-stakes meetings and 2-hour client lunches, wearing power suits, stilettos and vampire red lipstick. So, logically, for my undergraduate degree, I studied business with a major in marketing. In my senior year, my roommate had a girlfriend who co-organized a feminist film festival. She invited him to many screenings, which he generously obliged, and one evening, I tagged along.

I wasn’t particularly well versed about women’s issues and probably didn’t have a favourable impression of feminism at the time. But that night, after watching The Vienna Tribunal, a short documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada, the earth began rotating on a new axis for me.

The film itself was uncomplicated. In 1995, there had been a five-day human rights conference held in Austria – one day of which was devoted to women’s human rights. One by one, women from across the globe testified about the plight of women in their countries. I remember sitting in the theatre, gob-smacked. I had never heard about female genital cutting before. Or women being stoned to death. Or pre-pubescent girls being trafficked as sex slaves. By the end of the film, I was beside myself. In rage about all the ways in which women were being abused around the world. But also enraged that none of these issues had been covered in my three-year degree program. How could I be graduating from a top-tier university and not know about this stuff?

After seeing that film, there was no turning back. High heels, pitch decks and a C-suite job had lost their allure. Instead, I plunged full-throttle into gender studies and all forms of women’s empowerment. Pre-film, I was a bona fide material girl. Post-film, I had become a social justice warrior. I made my way through the canon of feminist work, shedding my uninformed worldview like a snake losing a layer of skin. I trained as a volunteer for a crisis line, taking anonymous calls from survivors of rape and sexual abuse. I served on an advisory board for a non-profit organization that provides entrepreneurship training to female artisans in the global south. I even completed a Master’s thesis deconstructing the representation of women in advertising from a feminist perspective – the furthest possible thing you could imagine from becoming a hot-shot ad exec.


In September 2007, after three years of coursework and a thorough literature review, I successfully completed my PhD “comps” (comprehensive exams). My research topic at the time was critical media education.

That same fall, I took on a new professional challenge. Given the nature of the work and my desire to succeed in the role, I told Michael (my thesis advisor) that I would need a year sabbatical from my academic pursuits to focus on my professional work. He was more than willing to accommodate this, but insisted that we meet six months hence, simply to catch up.

In February 2008, I found myself in Michael’s office. By then, I had plans to spend part of the summer in Rwanda with my sister Helen, volunteering with a women’s organization that provided trauma counseling and micro-credit loans to survivors of the genocide. Upon hearing about my plans, Michael shared an observation with me.

He said, “I’ve known you almost four years now and when you get to talking about some things, Anita, your eyes light up like a Christmas tree. So, I’m reflecting back to you that I don’t think you’ve found your passion. And you may want to revisit your research topic.”

I was stunned.

He continued: “I recommend that you take some time, maybe two or three months, to consider what you’re really passionate about. I bet you have some kind of file, folder or drawer at home in which you place all sorts of miscellaneous articles, clippings, or whatever. And you’re not quite sure why you do it, but you do it all the same. I suggest you open that file and explore its contents. I bet then you’ll discover your passion.”

Shortly after that fateful meeting, I took Michael’s suggestion to heart and literally opened a “Misc.” file in my two-drawer filing cabinet. To my amazement, when I fanned all the articles across my dining room table, I saw the common thread: I was intrinsically interested in and attracted to individuals who were contributing to social change.

That’s how I came to do research about social entrepreneurs. And I will be forever grateful to Michael for his advice. Not only did I discover my passion. I found my bliss.

Anita's Reading List


My Stroke of Insight

Jill Bolte Taylor 

An inspiring TED talk given by a neuroscientist from Harvard who describes what happened when she had a stroke and could understand what she was experiencing in real-time - including a feeling of oneness with the world. It’s a story about how a scientist had a spiritual experience. Many lessons to draw from such a powerful first-hand account.

The New Political Story that Could Change Everything

George Monbiot

Another TED talk, this time from a Guardian columnist. The description: "Drawing on findings from psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, he offers a new vision for society built around our fundamental capacity for altruism and cooperation. This contagiously optimistic talk will make you rethink the possibilities for our shared future."











Jack Ma: Love is Important in Business 

at the World Economic Forum

A highly successful entrepreneur describes what we need to be teaching and learning in schools given the dawn of Industry 4.0.

Why your Critics aren’t the Ones who Count

Brene Brown

It’s worth watching and reading anything by Brene Brown. This particular talk addresses our fears about “stepping into the ring” and how we can ignore our inner critic and the judgment of others. If you want to do something that requires risk and courage, watching this video will help.


Breakthrough Business Models

Volans Ventures

Since 2008, Volans has been conducting in-depth inquiries into the role of business and markets in addressing humanity’s greatest challenges and opportunities. This report is a great entry point for business students to consider how business can be a force for good.


The Regenerative Framework & White Paper

Capital Institute

This white paper considers how natural systems can inform us about the economic systems. Drawing from best-in-class scientists and sustainability experts, this paper looks at the principles that govern healthy natural systems and considers how we can re-organize our economic model to be regenerative (going beyond sustainable.)



Roman Krznaric

Argues that our brains are wired for human connection, and by leveraging empathy with six habits, we can improve society.

Humanity on a Tightrope

Paul Ehrlich & Robert Ornstein

Sees an “us vs. them” mindset as humanity’s greatest threat and argues that widespread empathy is the best antidote.

The Age of Empathy

Frans DeWaal

Describes the importance of empathy from an evolutionary perspective and suggests why we should have a more generous view of human nature.

Why Empathy Matters

J.D. Trout

Explores how personal decision-making and social policies can bridge the “empathy gap."

The Empathic Civilization

Jeremy Rifkin

Argues a new form of empathic consciousness is needed in the face of accelerating globalization and environmental entropy.

About the Author

Anita Nowak, PhD is an empathy expert, award-winning educator, author and social impact coach.  She is an Academic Associate with the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, where she teaches Leadership, Managing for Impact and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation. 


As founding Director of the Social Economy Initiative, she was responsible for integrating social entrepreneurship and social innovation into the Faculty’s teaching, research and outreach. She also co-designed a massive open online course called Social Learning for Social Impact. 


She served as Program & Instructional Design Advisor to the Jeanne Sauvé Foundation’s Public Leadership Program and advised the McConnell Foundation on RECODE, an initiative to help scale social innovation at colleges and universities across Canada.

Anita is a three-time TEDx speaker and the author of The Empaths Strike Back: Stories of Everyday Heroes Using Empathy to Change the World (forthcoming).

Finally, as a certified personal & professional coach, Anita supports HNWIs (high net worth individuals) and their families achieve their philanthropic and social impact goals.

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