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The Complexity and Art of Social Entrepreneurship

For those of you who have been to San Francisco, you might have noticed that in between the restaurants du jour, the strangely antiquated Muni system, the cable cars, the beautiful public library and the wonders of the DeYoung Museum that San Francisco has disappropriate numbers of homeless people. It seems untenable to think how a city that is only the size of 121 km2 and which is home to the most amount of billionaires in the U.S. and is the headquarters of nearly all of America's unicorn companies has such devastating numbers of homeless people?

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Homeless people sitting and standing outside the San Francisco public library

It is estimated that approximately 25% of San Francisco's population are homeless. However, despite all the homeless that you see on the streets of San Francisco, the vast majority of the homeless are actually women and children. A couple of years ago, I had met up with one of my friends who is a political consultant, and his sister, who worked for homeless shelters during one of my visits to San Francisco, and his sister revealed something that was very surprising to me. She told me that the majority of the women were only allowed to stay at the homeless shelters for up to 2 months, and that there was a never ending waiting list for the shelter. Most of the homeless were women and children, not the people you see on the streets. These women often came out of physical abuse, and had left their husbands, but had nowhere to go; because they were usually stay-at-home parents, they found it very difficult to find jobs, and because they could only stay at the shelter for two months, that was not enough time for them to find a job. She told me the system was broken, and although the city reportedly spent about $167-241 million annually on homeless programmes, that they were largely ineffective.

You might wonder how a city that is home to the most amount of billionaires in America does absolutely nothing to take care of their own people? Certainly it is shocking. Even in the media, when CEO Justin Keller recently wrote an open letter a few months ago to the San Francisco mayor complaining that

"The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day."

-Justin Keller, CEO

His letter makes one cringe at the callousness and ignorance of many of our supposedly "educated" pool of young tech leaders. However, despite the fact that is it easy to find many examples of these antics of "cartoonishly entitled [tech entrepreneurs]" and their wanton lack of noblesse oblige and incomprehension of the homeless problem in San Francisco, I am sometimes also brilliantly moved by what other entrepreneurs are able to do and the manner in which they tackle a growing social problem. 

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Doniece Sandoval, Founder of LavaMae​

Take for example, Doniece Sandoval, the Founder of LavaMae. LavaMae repurposes retired transportation buses into showers and toilets on wheels in order to deliver hygiene and restore dignity amongst the homeless in San Francisco. 

Her entrepreneurial journey really stimulates the mind in how one person was able to create this sort of value with lasting effects by using materials that were headed for the dumpster.

In a parallel and unprecedented way, recently Amazon has donated a 34,500 square-foot building in Seattle to give shelter to homeless people after Seattle Mayor Ed Murray declared a state of emergency on homelessness in November of 2015. 

One of the main reasons of homelessness is that the cost of housing over the past two decades has vastly exceeded the amount of income that people earn making minimum-wage jobs or bring in from modest pensions, disability or welfare. Lava Mae, and Amazon have created novel and effective ways to counteract the growing social problem of the homeless in the United States. In the media, we often idolise entrepreneurs such as Travis Kalanick and Elon Musk, who have been caricatured in the media as alpha males with a love of money and fast cars. If you look for the bad in humankind expecting to find it, you surely will. However, lesser known entrepreneurs like Doniece Sandoval re-write our collective dialogue and makes one truly believe and say, "Yeah, it's crazy, and it's ambitious, but if you are committed to doing this thing, I will support you."