In the past decade, as we all know, social enterprise and business has become incredibly popular. The idea is incredibly compelling: utilize business practices while also bettering the world. Unleash the power of the market to solve social problems. We can make money and do good.

Along with its increasing popularity, the demand for learning about social enterprise has shot up. Many top universities are beginning to teach social enterprise, either through individual classes or even through majors and concentrations. Here are some examples:

And there are many, many more examples of cutting edge social enterprise programs.

But here’s where I question this approach: can we actually teach social enterprise? A while ago, I read the excellent book “How to Change the World” by David Bornstein, and the book discusses Ashoka’s original methodology of discovering social entrepreneurs. The social entrepreneurs they found were people who understood a gap in their society or community, and then found some way – often an innovative way – of addressing that gap and ultimately benefiting society and individuals. These social entrepeneurs are incredibly hard working, often laboring in obscurity and with low pay to solve social issues. They are driven by their unwavering passion and grand vision of how the world should be. From the website:

Perhaps our most important criterion, entrepreneurial quality is the defining characteristic of first class entrepreneurs. It defines leaders who see opportunities for change and innovation and devote themselves entirely to making that change happen. These leaders often have little interest in anything beyond their mission, and they are willing to spend the next ten to fifteen years making a historical development take place.

It seems to me that social entrepreneurs are people who are incredibly passionate about a new or better way of solving a social problem.

It also seems to me that many of the highly successful Ashoka fellows don’t have MBA’s or advanced degrees that teach them about social enterprise. Instead, they succeed because of their deep understanding of a social issue and of the needs of their beneficiaries, or those they ultimately hope to help. This strong understanding does not come about through an MBA, but is the result of being part of the society or communities you are aiming to help or reach. It comes from going into the field and speaking extensively with rural farmers, women lacking access to credit, or refugees trying to make a living in IDP camps. It comes from immersing yourself into these communities and learning so much about the needs of those you want to help that the solution crystallizes before your very eyes. Read Paul Polak’s book, “Out of Poverty” to understand how simple and powerful solutions can be found by simply going into the field and understanding local needs.

The most important thing for a social entrepreneur’s success is a vision of how precisely to solve a problem. If you have a strong vision and a good method of achieving that vision, success is possible. Second is resilience, determination, passion. Social entrepreneurs have to be highly driven to follow their vision above all else, despite innumerable obstacles in their way.

Surely an MBA in social enterprise can teach you about the workings of the market, or how to write a business plan, but aren’t these things you can pick up eventually? On the contrary, you can’t teach someone through school how to gain a vision, or how to be relentless and passionate.

Wouldn’t it be more worth it for aspiring social entrepreneurs to pursue graduate studies in the specific field they want to affect change in, to understand the needs of their clients or beneficiaries better?

Do those who study social entrepreneurship in the classroom eventually become social entrepreneurs? Or are social entrepreneurs those who have a vision and the passion to see it through, regardless of educational background?

Ultimately, there are certain business principles that can be taught to make the lives of social entrepreneurs easier and more efficient. However, social entrepreneurship itself cannot be taught; such success ultimately depends on qualities gained outside the classroom – vision, issue understanding, and passion.

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