Empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is a key skill for entrepreneurs that want to create impact. Without this foundational skill, we will hurt people and disrupt institutions. Everyone needs the empathic skill in order to adapt, make good decisions, collaborate effectively and thrive. Research in cognitive neuroscience has shown a strong correlation between mindfulness and our ability to empathize.
Stress, meanwhile, activates our less social, more primitive survival instincts, which impedes our ability to empathize and be compassionate—and even makes it harder to absorb new information. But what does empathy look like in action, and how can you incorporate into your business model? Three social entrepreneurs from around the world share their stories of developing empathy in themselves and others.
Mary Gordon / Roots of Empathy
Roots of Empathy helps young school children develop their emotional competence. In multiple studies across various countries it has been proven to reduce levels of aggression and bullying. So far, the organisation has reached over 500,000 children around the world. Mary Gordon believes that the root of empathy is the bond between a mother and her child. How does it work? The organisation brings a new baby and mother into the classroom of primary school students. During the class, a trained facilitator prompts the students to interact with the baby, and understand how it feels.
For this lucky class, Mary Gordon Founder of Roots of Empathy is the facilitator. She asks the class about baby; “How is she feeling? How do you know? What is she focused on? How do you feel when she is sad?” The students answer with surprising clarity. They talk about how the class has affected them in other ways. From one 9 year old, “We can tell when someone is sad, and we know how that feels. We’ve learned to how to feel empathy for each other”.
The students were asked what their hopes and dreams are for Abby. “To do well in school,” “To grow up safely,” “To be happy”. The program runs in 11 countries, in different languages, and as Mary Gordon points out, someone always says to be happy. “Children around the world are not different in their hopes for next generation”. At the end of the class, the head teacher of the school has an admission.
“This was the most challenging class in the school this time last year. Many of the children have learning difficulties. Since Roots for Empathy started, everyone has noticed a dramatic change for the better. We’ll be rolling it out in two more classes at the start of the next school year”. As the programme continues to grow, it sows the seeds of empathy in the next generation.
Lili Lapenna / MyBnK
By designing programmes that teach financial literacy, Lapenna is paving the way for ethical banking, spending and investment. MyBnk is training school children to make informed financial decisions as they become young adults and face the challenges of an increasingly competitive job market. “Empathy plays an important role in the work we do at MyBnk,” says Lapenna.
MyBnk involves a youth advisory council of 16-35 year olds to redesign their programs to keep them relevant. Lapennas latest project is to bring the work she has been doing with children, to the adult market as well. The first step in designing a programme is to get deep, honest feedback from different audiences and engage them in the process.
Lily is fostering and educating a generation of people who will become the enterprising and financially empowered citizens of the future. Her aim is to fundamentally change the way they relate to finance, financial services, enterprise, and ultimately their attitudes toward achieving a fulfilled life.
Charlie Murphy / Partners for Youth Empowerment
At the core of Charlie Murphy’s work is the belief in the transformative power of creativity. His vision is to revolutionise the way teachers, educators, facilitators, and youth workers engage with young people to bring out their sense of purpose in the world. “Young people tend to thrive in the company of adults who are alive to their own creativity,” says Murphy.
Partners for Youth Empowerment currently works in seven countries, having reached over 150,000 young people through camp programmes and trainings in 2012. In an engaging and interactive sessions Charlie enticed workshop participants out of their comfort zones by focusing on creativity based engagement (pictured above). Activities centred around sharing and listening exercises, role playing games, and creating metaphors for how people can see themselves as changemakers.
He invites social entrepreneurs to think of themselves as “the crack that opens up over time to bring down the wall.” “We’re working to create a world where education becomes synonymous with engagement and real-world solutions and problems, because you don’t need to be an ‘artist’ to use the arts in your work or your life.”
All of these social entrepreneurs have scalable, replicable ideas. They are all working to empower the current and next generation with empathy. What can you do in your organisation to make it more empathetic? Can you work with these entrepreneurs, or develop your own programmes? Think of new ways to incorporate more empathy in your daily life. The more of us that practice empathy, the more impact we all can have on the lives of others.