Today, many higher education institutions are faced with declining enrollment, increasing tuitions and calls to infuse their degree tracks with more practical experiences for students, leading more directly to meaningful careers. At the same time, college students are searching for programs offering practical, academically rigorous work-related experiences that tie into their social consciousness as citizens of the world. Social entrepreneurship (SE) education, on campus and online, may offer a solution.
SE 101. Social entrepreneurs are people who create businesses with the core intention to help mitigate a social problem, using the proceeds and spinoff services derived from that business. An example of an SE enterprise is the local thrift store operation that also acts as a women’s center, training and hiring the supported women in the retail and outreach roles, while cycling the proceeds into the center’s general operations. SE’s can be for-profit, nonprofit or hybrid operations, depending on the entity’s mission.
Social impact investing, meanwhile, is most often a corporate form of SE, wherein existing companies or institutions provide funding for socially oriented projects or “cloud-seeding” funds for other SE operations. The Newman’s Own philanthropy model is a well-known form of successful social investment.
Origins. In the late 1800s, some noteworthy businessmen embraced novel approaches to combine making money with what they thought were socially transformative products. Among the trailblazers were flour mill operators J.H. Kellogg, C.W. Post, nutritionist James Caleb Johnson, inventor of granula (now Granola), and Sylvester Graham, inventor of the famous Graham Cracker. These idealists sought new food products to feed the nutritionally (and morally) starved workers caught in the horrors of the early Industrial Revolution. The social entrepreneurship concept caught on, gradually gaining traction with the social work movement of the 1880s. Today, SE is moving onto campuses as a subset of business, sustainability and other majors, educating students in the principles and practices of SE, while also potentially enhancing campus recruitment yields and student-retention rates.
The term “social entrepreneur” was coined in 1953 in Howard Bowne’s book Social Responsibilities of the Businessman. The idea certainly existed but had no special identity prior to that. Amplified in the 1990s by business consultant Charles Leadbeater, the concept has now melded with growing e-commerce and social media innovations to become a global phenomenon.
Going global. Social entrepreneurship has evolved from healthy cereals into the corporate suite, becoming the platform for a wide variety of social ventures. Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank developed his microloan concept in Asia in 1983, winning the Nobel Prize in 2006. Fair Trade is another well-known branch of social entrepreneurship. Starting after World War II by religious groups and NGOs, it blossomed in the 1970s, now accounting for nearly 2% of total global sales (7.88 Billion Euros) of major agricultural commodities coffee, cocoa, tea, fruits, sugar, flowers and numerous handicraft items. And corporate philanthropy seeds the clouds of hundreds of social entrepreneurship ventures globally.
Higher education takes the hint. Since 2008, the prestigious Harvard Business School has developed MBA-level courses entitled Social Impact Investing, the Social Innovation Lab, Public Entrepreneurship, and Investing for Social Impact. Harvard regularly holds major conferences on social entrepreneurship and has published over 300 books, studies, theses and cases on the topic since 1997.
Oxford University’s Saïd Business School offers MBA core courses and fellowships at its Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. Classy.org, an online platform, lists 19 universities offering degrees, certifications and courses under the SE umbrella, including the Wharton School, Yale, Stanford and Cornell. In India, several universities are jumping on board, with MBAs in Social Entrepreneurship offered at Indira Gandhi National Open University, Sri Guru Granth Sahib University, and Bangalore University’s Seshadriuram Institute of Management Studies.
Acting as a facilitator of SE best practices, training and curricula for higher education institutions, the nonprofit Global Center for Social Entrepreneurship Network (GCSEN) Foundation has been working with college partners to accelerate offerings of social entrepreneurship courses, degrees, boot camps and internships. GCSEN provides curricula, resources, best practice advice and support services to colleges interested in offering innovative programs for budding social entrepreneurs. Students working in GCSEN boot camps have already started up a number of small businesses having social ventures, such as creating a Latino community center, bringing wireless internet service to schools in Nepal, and building an online app for isolated and depressed college students.
Founded in 2015 by Mike Caslin, a venture consultant and lecturer at SUNY New Paltz and professor at Babson College, GCSEN recently was instrumental in helping Wheaton College of Norton Mass., secure a $10 million gift from the visionary Diana Davis Spencer Foundation of Bethesda, Md. The gift established an endowed Professorship in Social Entrepreneurship and provides for the renovation of a business department building on campus to house SE studies at Wheaton.
Benefits of SE ed. GSCEN’s research has conclusively shown that SE education results in significant content knowledge gains retained by students; shows significant gains in self-confidence; is ranked highly as “life-changing” by students; and is highly recommended by students to their peers. Additionally, SE gained a business formulation rate near 50%, by students participating in GSCEN programs.
Caslin says his organization’s goal in 10 years is, “To make social entrepreneurship courses and degrees available on every college and university campus around the world.” Still, the programs face administrative hurdles—obstacles that Caslin thinks GCSEN can overcome with its innovative internship program, blended learning online courses and social entrepreneur boot camps, as well as its model SE curricula that can be easily absorbed into any college’s existing business or liberal arts programs.
“All the data shows that students are looking for skills that enhance their careers,” says Caslin. “Our SE coursework and Social Venture Internship program gives them practical business startup knowledge and field experience, as they work on their own business and social venture. The program is a career and resume builder, offering practical experience and professional references. GCSEN programs emphasize the “Four P Impacts” on People, Profit, Planet and Place, so students can jump-start right into action. Colleges offering SE programs will attract highly motivated students who want to work in the real world, and also make a difference.”
It’s clear that SE and its altruistic mission is growing steadily on and off campus. The key: millennials. By 2025, this cohort of 80 million will be 75% of the entire workforce. Although millennials have not been breaking any records when it comes to general entrepreneurship, they have taken to the social consciousness concept in a big way.
Millennials get it. A global conference titled “Prac-ademic Social Entrepreneurship for a Sustainable World” held at Belgium’s Namur University in 2017 was packed with faculty and administrators hailing from more than 200 Jesuit business schools and colleges. Business publications such as Forbes tout the youth movement in SE with annual feature articles, such as “Meet the Thirty Under Thirty Social Entrepreneurs Bringing Change in 2017” highlighting “young people who are all working tirelessly to creatively solve some of the world’s toughest problems.”
Maybe social entrepreneurship is an answer to the lagging admissions, lack of student retention and flat-out lack of relevance our campuses are currently facing.
As Caslin says, “It is vital that a new generation of business-oriented, socially conscious millennials emerge on campus, creating with purpose a “4-P Impact” with people, profit, planet and place, to make meaning, make money and move the world to a better place.”
Harv Hilowitz is director of strategic development at the Global Center for Social Entrepreneurship Network (GCSEN) Foundation.
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