PAMELA HARTIGAN, Director of Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, Unreasonable Pracademic

Pamela Hartigan, HUB Zürich

“All-consuming” and “highly infectious” are terms Pamela Hartigan employs to describe the virus that is social entrepreneurship, which she emphasises is not a discipline but a problem-solving approach. According to Pamela, the practice of social entrepreneurship combines innovation, opportunity and resourcefulness to improve people’s lives by addressing market or government failures.

Pamela was born in Guayaquil and raised all over Latin America – “we moved around a lot” – and was infected by entrepreneurship at a young age. Poverty was everywhere, and Pamela had lots of ‘badly-off’ friends. With a twinkle in her eye, she recalls that she was actually jealous of her friends – when her family was living in the Dominican Republic – because she would go and play in their family’s grass huts, while her house of bricks was cold and boring.

Until the age of 17 Pamela went to schools run by nuns, thus her enrolment in Georgetown University School of Foreign Service was quite a shock. As the first of nine women ever to attend the all-male school like a true feminist, she excelled in the challenge. Pamela is a great believer in pushing boundaries; how else can change occur if we do not go beyond our comfort zones?  After University she started working at the World Bank – the pinnacle of organisations for an Economics graduate – yet she found that “it was not for her” as it had yet to transform into a development institution committed to alleviating poverty.

During her years in Washington DC, she began volunteering in grassroots Latin American organisations during a time when Central American refugees were seeking new opportunities in the USA, and she discovered her talent setting up community organisations to respond to those needs and for mobilising funds. Not unexpectedly, this trajectory led to furthering her education with a Masters of Public Health, whereby she gained a number of leading positions in the World Heath Organisation (WHO), Geneva. Between 1997-2001, Pamela was the Programme Manager and Area Coordinator for Applied Field Research in the Special Programme on Research & Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) and then headed the Department of Health Promotion for three years. She smiles when remembering her previous seven years (1990-1997) at the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), a regional office of WHO. In those days she focused on HIV/AIDS, which had just emerged on the scene and was  met with extreme fear due to cultural taboos.

Today, her challenge is to anchor social entrepreneurship back to reality. In her previous position as Managing Director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship – founded by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum – Pamela played a key role in fuelling the trend of individual social entrepreneurs being lifted to celestial heights.   But this period she saw as a first step in the evolution of the practice.

We need to stop thinking of Social Entrepreneurship as a niche and really look at entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs creating a movement for change…. The star status awarded to Social Entrepreneurs [aka. “heropreneurs”] played its purpose in the 80s and 90s, when the individuals’ actions needed to be recognised and legitimised.

With almost a million global, monthly searches for ‘social entrepreneur’ on Google as well as countless degrees and masters dedicated to the approach, it is safe to presume that the social entrepreneur has become a social archetype. Regarding the multitude of degrees popping up around the globe, Pamela states, “If you think you have to go to school to learn [how to be a social entrepreneur] that’s your first business mistake.”  Additionally, she believes it to be highly inefficient for everyone to set up their own enterprise. Pamela believes real change can only be achieved through movements and collaboration; so rather than founding an organisation, look for others that do the same thing and “hitch yourself onto it.” Focus has to shift away from the individual to the ecosystem that supports them; the individuals within an organisation who execute the entrepreneur’s vision are just as vital.

A self-confessed Yentle (a Yiddish word for matchmaker), after eight years with the Schwab Foundation, Pamela saw an opportunity to link entrepreneurs to big companies. For real change in our society to occur, the social entrepreneurship clique had to open up and ‘blend’ with the public, commercial and social sector.  Knowing it was time for the next challenge, Pamela co-founded her own venture, Volans. She soon realised, however, that she was “a lousy consultant” as she kept on giving information and advice out for free and found a new path as ‘pracademic’ (a term she uses to describe a person who has a PhD but practices their career outside academia ) at the Saïd Business School, Oxford University, where she can give her information out for free! There she helps others realise and progress towards a future where social entrepreneurship does not exist, and every entrepreneur is social.

From working in multilateral institutions to private foundations to private universities, from being a junior employee to a founder of an organisation, Pamela’s experiences have given her a no-bullshit approach, she is truthful – sometimes self-deprecatingly so – about her person and skills. “Trial and error is the only way [to learn]” and the only way to go forward is to take risks: “I was always a risk-taker… the funny thing about me is I don’t see things as a risk.” And yet, when she is passionate, she is fiercely dedicated: she has been married for forty years and is aware that “there is no such thing as part-time entrepreneurship [which is] a burnout career.” To conclude, she simply states, “I don’t know any social entrepreneurs who have exit strategies… except in the coffin.”


Additional Quotes

“If you do not scale, you cannot have impact.”

“Social Entrepreneurs want three things: (1) legitimacy for the models they are persuing, (2) access to networks of power, and (3) capital. The equation is, 1 + 2 = 3.”

“Our entire way of living is completely unsustainable. [...] The biggest advances in innovation happen when we are hit with major crises and world wars. We we are going to crash against a wall and scramble.”

More about The Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship

The Skoll Centre is a leading academic entity connected to Oxford University for the advancement of social entrepreneurship worldwide.  The centre fosters innovative social transformation through education, research, and collaboration.

The Skoll Foundation drives large scale change by investing in, connecting and celebrating social entrepreneurs and the innovators who help them solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Pamela is also currently a Trustee or on the Board of Advisors of the following social enterprises:  Bamboo Finance (Switzerland), CAMBIA (Australia), Fair Trade USA, INDEX (Denmark), Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation (USA), Mobile Metrix (Brazil), Royal DSM (The Netherlands), SafePoint UK), SocialKapital Fund (Denmark), The Story Museum (UK) and Waste Ventures (India).

As well as teaching at Saïd Business School, Pamela is also an “Associate Professor” at Columbia Business School, New York.


Country: Switzerland

Type of Education: PhD in Human Developmental Psychology from Catholic University Washington DC, an MA in Education from America University, Washington DC, an MA in International Economics from Institut d’Etudes Europeénes Université Libre de Bruxelles and a Bachelor of Science and International Economics from the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Washington DC.

Awards: n/a

Foundation Affiliation: Schwab Foundation, Skoll Foundation

Pathway to Impact: Path of Passion

Impact Area/s: Health; Social Relations

Organisation Type: Academic, Public Sector, Foundation, Non-profit

Other media

Pamela contributes a bi-monthly article to the Huffington Post, online:

In 2008 she co-authored along with John Elkington, The Power of Unreasonable PeopleHow Entrepreneurs Create Markets that Change the World.

Pamela talks about the Evolution of Social Enterprise, The Global Shifts Conference, Melbourne, Australia 14 December 2012

About the author Helena Rosebery

After completing a Master of Communication (Food & Culture) from Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences, Italy, Helena Rosebery followed her heart to Zürich where she is inspired everyday by the resilience and greenness of her home-grown herbs. Helena employs words and coloured pencils to professionally communicate all that is – and is not – in the pursuit of a more ethical world.

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