Across the globe, growing social and environmental threats challenge us to re-think whose job it is to solve them. While governments struggle to keep up, private social enterprises and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) are expanding.  In the U.S. charitable sector alone, nearly 2 million organizations now employ roughly 10% of American workers. Even more dramatically, social impact businesses are growing in number and influence.

Yet the impact of this trend is little understood. Social entrepreneurs (SE’s), the frontline leaders and funders of this expansion, mostly drive this development. But who prepares these future change-makers? Colleges have a vital role to play in that, and growing numbers of students want to learn how.

This semester, my class INDS 234: Social Entrepreneurship, set out to explore its potential at Lafayette College.  The class filled up quickly, with mostly seniors and a handful of juniors. These students hailed from all over the world – Pakistan, Turkey, Ghana, Zambia, throughout the U.S. – and across the political spectrum.

Students first dove into their own aspirations and head/heart alignment. They researched SE trends, myths, and opportunities. They met successful entrepreneurs, organizers, and philanthropists. Mid-semester, they formed teams to research and develop impactful startups.

Three teams developed new businesses and explored their own complex barriers and opportunities, funding, and success measures. They tested them with their peers in class.

Successful SE’s however, need more than capable teams.  They need an ecosystem that supports SE with intellectual, financial, political, and social capital. In short, the success of these and future ventures will depend on the support of Lafayette College and the surrounding environment. For this reason, four teams in the class developed and pressure tested ideas that Lafayette might adopt and build to strengthen SE for current and future students.

First, the class had to decide on their guiding values that would ground their suggestions to Lafayette. They decided that future students should be able to:

  1. Explore the SE field and their own ideas, passions, and ventures
  2. Connect with on and off-campus stakeholders to further their interests, and
  3. Impact their world, during and after their student careers, and reflect on it.

These values align nicely with Lafayette’s Core Values of Sustainability, Community Engagement, and Diversity and Inclusion. But we know that innovative, entrepreneurial thinking nearly always transcends academic specialties and departments.

The teams scanned Lafayette and peer institutions, settling on key recommendations for those  working on:

  • Administrative-led efforts
  • Curriculum, or credit-level offerings
  • Student organizations
  • Alumni-led efforts, and
  • Community organizations

Since the SE field as a discipline is young, the best colleges and universities for SE have mostly focused on the first two – admin and curriculum.  We suggest that Lafayette can do better and build all five.  Students sought to build upon Lafayette’s strengths and then define and fill some of its gaps.

First, the class defined a social entrepreneur (SE).  S/he is someone who,  “identifies a compelling challenge or a broken system, pursues an opportunity to solve it by creating pattern-breaking social change – regardless of the resources s/he currently controls. The impact of their work is noticeable, largely measurable, and they mobilize financial, technology, or human capital resources to achieve short term results while producing a long-term enduring solution – whether nonprofit, for-profit, or public sector.”

From this definition, note that we expect Lafayette students to do more than create ventures that are sustainable.  They should learn the systemic cause for social or environmental challenges and use ventures to help them achieve long term systems change. That is really hard, but vitally important; and doable.  We have confidence in Lafayette students.

But what do we know about effective SE’s? They tend to have creative minds and entrepreneurial temperament, plus a:

  • Desire and ability to learn
  • High expectations, ambition & humility!
  • Transparency and openness to collaboration
  • Relentless focus on solving a challenge
  • Ability to see complexity, but communicate simply
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Opposable mindset

Can these attributes be learned by undergraduates in a liberal arts institution with a strong engineering program? Yes. Of course, business development and management skills matter, but a social entrepreneur needs more. They must learn to build teams, test new ideas in cross-cultural, “out of the box” creative settings, and benefit from robust cross-disciplinary knowledge including anthropology, sociology, engineering, psychology, history, politics, and other disciplines. They almost always need to function in collaborative, networked environments.

This report is the stuff of the class, and the following report draws from these perspectives.

Report from the 2020 Social Entrepreneurship Class.docx

Thanks to the Dyer Center for allowing me to teach it, and the students for diving into the course, especially given the mid-semester COVID-19 outbreak. We were forced to bring the course online, and the students rolled up their sleeves and kept working, and learning. My undergraduate assistant Remy Oktay ’23 offered extraordinary support and feedback.

Enjoy the findings, and I trust it will give you a taste of student capabilities at Lafayette College today – and the possibilities for tomorrow. The world has some awesome challenges. These young men and women confront them with the most important asset we can foster and gain: hope.

Sincerely,
Professor Marty Johnson