Friday, January 24, 2014

Professor Greg Dees: A life that bent history itself.

Robert Kennedy once said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.” Although his life was cut short just a few weeks ago, Professor Greg Dees has undeniably bent the history of my own life and has radically changed more than just a small portion of events throughout the world.

During my first class with Professor Dees  "Social Entrepreneurship and Global Poverty" in the fall quarter of 2012 – he managed to introduce me to a very different side (perhaps the best side) of Stanford's Graduate School of Business. From the first day of class, he made it clear that this was to be an intimate community focused not only on critiquing development approaches  which is "what we are good at and trained to do"  but on "moving from tensions and problems into potential solutions, and re-framing the question in positive (action-oriented) ways."

Rather than discussing theories of change, he pressed us on what our own “personal theory of action” is, and personally encouraged me to explore launching a social enterprise in the education space. In one email, he wrote that "You are exploring an ambitious and challenging undertaking, but I have full faith in you.” I’ll never forget those last six words.

Professor Dees truly trusted and empowered his class. Despite his massive accomplishments – e.g., Business Week has called him “The man who defined social entrepreneurship” – he trusted us students to facilitate each (3 hour) class, without any guidance or input from him (unless we specifically requested it). He once told me over lunch (and reiterated several times in class) that he firmly believed “you should never do for people (including students) what they can do for themselves.” (An idea we are now trying to implement at Amal Academy in Pakistan).

Although Professor Dees is considered “the father of social enterprise education,” he was the type of person that was more concerned with “being interested not interesting.” For example, he was extremely quiet in class (he once even apologized over email for talking and taking up too much of our class time), but never failed to respond (at deep length) to our emails and coffee/lunch requests and would always send our class extremely thoughtful class summary emails (that were 2-3 pages long).

Author Maaza Mengiste writes that “Each of our stories pivot on a single moment; that short pause between what is and what could be.” Because of Professor Dees’ life of humility and immersion, I believe my story has pivoted several times.

The first moment was during my second course with Professor Dees, when he decided to compromise the class policy by allowing me to form a “team of one” (as he called it) so that I could explore the education sector in Pakistan. Professor Dees knew that this was an idea that I was passionate about and he believed in me enough to break his class policies (which he was typically super strict about). The second moment is when he helped Amal Academy get seed funding from the Center for Social Innovation, a program that Professor Dees helped launch in 1999.

Although his absence will be profoundly felt throughout the world, I find hope knowing that we are doing the work that he has inspired. And my prayer is that we can somehow find a way to bend history even in a fraction of the way that Professor Dees has (and still is).