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Jonathan Lewis: On The Side of Hot Dogs and Humanity

Filed in Uncategorized — October 5, 2016

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As our team gets ready to head to Opportunity Collaboration (OC) next week, we’re delighted to share with you a biased profile of Jonathan Lewis, beloved friend, the Founder of OC, and so much more.  Read on!

Written by Founder & CEO of Black Fox Philanthropy, Natalie Lynn Rekstad

Jonathan Lewis has a passion for more than family, life, and hot dogs.  Capturing this via an “unofficial bio” proved a daunting task, as in this series I aim to connect the dots between what people do and why they do it ~ why social impact work is central to their lives, and the reasons behind their singular call to action.  It will come as no surprise to many that social innovator Jonathan Lewis’ unfolding defies a singular narrative.  While his vision for change stems from the core question, “Whose side am I on?”, it is his uncanny acumen for seeing and seizing varied opportunities that have resulted in enduring impact on a global scale.

Jonathan Lewis

Jonathan came of age in 1960’s San Francisco, the epicenter of an anti-establishment phenomenon that would have lasting effects upon the country, the world, and an earnest young man immersed in the ideals of counterculture.  That immersion would lead directly to a life in social entrepreneurship, as Jonathan Lewis never considered the “should” path of seeking riches and rewards for himself.  Instead, having witnessed its power firsthand, he was driven by justice and the power of grassroots revolution.

While many in his generation eventually abandoned their idealism at the altar of the American Dream, Jonathan had taken in the movement in on a cellular level, and questioning the status quo had become his norm.  He has chosen to bear witness to unconscionable suffering, but also to relentlessly seek solutions that can turn the tide for one woman, one community, one generation and beyond.  It is a difficult and heartbreaking endeavor, and for most the human instinct to turn away prevails.

The key to Jonathan’s longevity in the social sector is an ability to take the work and the heartbreak seriously, but not himself.  He has a famously irreverent, often self-deprecating sense of humor that enables him to maintain perspective.  That perspective includes the long view that the world is, in fact, a far better place than when he was born.  There is peace in more places, progress in the areas of race and gender, and brilliant young minds joining in the struggle to eradicate poverty in their lifetimes.

JonathanLewis2And oddly relevant in the case of Jonathan:  The hot dogs have gotten a lot more sophisticated.  He discovered this on a trip to Santiago, Chile, where he was introduced to a famous hot dog joint called “Domino’s” by a renowned health expert.  Yes, a health expert.  The experience was transcendent – french roll, cilantro, quality meat, just the right spices – it was a meal unto itself, and Jonathan’s curiosity was piqued.  At home with his then middle school-aged son, they watched a PBS documentary on the history of the hot dog, finding it to be a worthy icon to be pursued together with passion.  There is more to say on the subject of Jonathan and hot dogs, but the fact that he has an entire web page dedicated to them speaks for itself.

A social entrepreneur at heart, he is uniquely wired to understand the challenges and opportunities in helping to solve the most daunting issues of our time.  Leveraging his strategist mind and considerable influence in developing vehicles for global impact, he is a force as both entrepreneur and catalyst for change.  Recent examples include starting MCE Social Capital, leveraging over $100 million of private capital into microloans in the developing world (a notable achievement is his receiving a custom-made Golden Hot Dog Award for ten years of service as the board chair), serving as a scholar-in-residence/professor on the topic of social entrepreneurship at NYU’s Reynold’s school, founding and hosting Café Impact, an online platform highlighting people and careers in social impact, and founding Opportunity Collaboration (OC), an international “unconference” designed to leverage resources and innovations in the social sector, while breaking down traditional silos among change agents.

He is currently writing a book on social justice, social change, and social entrepreneurship as a means to inspire a generation, the goal of which is to have exponential impact that reaches far beyond his one voice, one mind, one lionheart.  It is part memoir, part cautionary tale, and part guidepost for aspiring social sector innovators with the imagination, brilliance, and resolve to say “no” to the things that are unjust, and “yes” to a vision for a better way and a better world.

What these ventures have in common is the recognition that we are in the continuum of a much larger humanitarian movement that began in the 60’s.  While brilliant in their inception and execution, these pursuits are at their core a manifestation of Jonathan’s deep connection to humanity, and an emotional resonance that has little to do with intellect.  He is fervently not on the side of data and restricted funding, he is on the side of the fierce single mother in Bolivia trying and succeeding to clothe and feed her children against overwhelming odds.  He considers the movement around “effective altruism” a crock, because what sustains us in the trenches of this work is not evidence-driven interventions; what drives and sustains us is our own inner journey, a connection to humanity, and the eyes and heart to see ourselves in the suffering of others. Jonathan does not drive change for “others” as he does not see himself as separate, but instead considers his work a dance of both giving and receiving.

That stake in the ground, among countless others, reveals a willingness to both make enemies and embarrass himself (anyone personally familiar with his sense of humor knows the latter is not that great of a stretch).  Courage, in the true sense of the word, is woven throughout his life and his message.  His upcoming book, The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur reveals that courage and more.  It is rich with hope, grace, failures, triumphs, and celebration.  Those celebrations often involve the iconic hot dog, a fitting meal for a man who has become an icon in his own right.  Plus, as Jonathan quips, “At my age, anything with chemical preservatives in it is a good thing.”

P.S. – Jonathan Lewis’ book, The Unfinished Social Entrepreneur, will include an educational guide and will be made free or nearly free to underserved communities to inspire them to greater engagement in the social sector in the United States and worldwide, with all profits going toward social change. To help fund the writing, editing, and philanthropic distribution of the book, donate here. 

P.P.S:  To learn more about Opportunity Collaboration, read this blog post by Natalie on her experience.