Can social entrepreneurship be taught?

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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16 Responses to Can social entrepreneurship be taught?

  1. Enjoyed reading your insights Akhlia. Thank you. Kathryn Polak

  2. Enjoyed reading your insights Akhlia. Here are two more programs/people worth mentioning.
    Stanford’s Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability http://extreme.stanford.edu/index.html. MIT Grad student Amy Smith teaches a class called D-Lab http://d-lab.mit.edu/
    There are tons more, but these are my favorites for now.
    Kathryn

  3. zionaetzion says:

    Social entrepreneurs those who have a vision and the passion to see it through, regardless of educational background?

    These are the game changers…

    Those that question and know where to go to for advice and have total focus.

    I think this quality in a person is better than another degree.

  4. Akhila says:

    Thank you for the comment!

    I totally agree. I think that this sort of vision necessary to become an effective social entrepreneur cannot be gained in the classroom. Some of these qualities are inherent.

    A business education can surely help you with the nuts and bolts of your plan/venture, but it cannot MAKE you a better social entrepreneur.

    Thanks again for the insight!

  5. Akhila says:

    Kathryn, thank you so much for your kind comments and suggestions!

    I definitely think that your team itself is a strong example of innovative vision and the right passion to see the project through. You have gone out into the field, spoken with people, and entered social entrepreneurship/innovative design with the right mindset. It is organizations like yours that are pushing forward social enterprise.

    Some of those qualities just aren't taught through MBAs!

  6. Thanh says:

    This is a great post. In your question of “can social entrepreneurship be taught?” I'm curious to know what you think needs to be learned? What do you think the purpose of social enterprise should be? Is your question different from “can entrepreneurship be taught?” or is it specifically geared towards social only?

  7. cameronplommer says:

    Very interesting thoughts here. I definitely agree with you that social entrepreneurship classes are all great, but the passion and deep understanding of the social problem is the most important factor. I have always thought that business understanding is secondary and is important but can be added later after one has the tools and knowledge to tackle a certain problem.

    I am currently reading “How to Change the World,” do you recommend it? What are your thoughts on the book. What can be learned from it?

  8. Akhila says:

    Thanh, you bring up something I pondered while I wrote this. Yes, entrepreneurship itself cannot be taught either, so I suppose my “conclusion” here isn't anything special. But what I *do* think is special about social entrepreneurship is the motive, and the drive for engaging in this work — the desire to better people's lives above all else, and to come up with solutions to some of the world's most intractable problems. The desire to do good takes over all else, while in entrepreneurship it's the hope of getting rich and famous that motivates. That's why I still think the distinction could be made between the two, though I also think that my argument essentially applies to regular for-profit entrepreneurs too.

    The goal of social enterprise is obviously different – helping people/social change, not profit or fame. So I think that's why social entrepreneurs are a different breed to some extent, and the distinction is worth making.

  9. Akhila says:

    Cameron, thanks so much for your thoughts and for stopping by!

    So true, that business understanding can always be picked up and can be added. But as you said, first and foremost, one needs the specific knowledge of the issue at hand, as well as a deep passion for solving a particular social problem. That simply cannot be taught.

    Yes, I recommend reading “How to change the world”! It's a great book and has some helpful insights about social enterprise. I think it's inspirational stories are great, but I found the book “Out of poverty” much better because it is focused on one story and one application of social enterprise models. I think How to change the world is a good introduction to the topic of social entrepreneurship but it's also quite basic; if you don't know too much about it beforehand it can be a good read and eye-opening, but otherwise it's not especially challenging and tells you what you already know (the basics of social enterprise).

  10. Kim says:

    This is an interesting question.

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

    I completely agree with that. And this is why I'm very glad that we are seeing MBAs and Masters programs at Policy Schools throughout the country start designing curriculum to this end. The MBA can't give you the passion. That comes from whatever motivates the social entrepreneur to take up whatever issue lies before her. But what the MBA can do is give that passionate individual tools to help them design more efficient ways of achieving their end. AND a community of intelligent motivated leaders who are looking for innovative ways of fighting their own battles. The prevalence of Social Enterprise in higher education achieves an equally important but more subtle outcome of removing the false dichotomy between business and morality in academia. Of course one doesn't need a degree to be a powerful social entrepreneur, but I think there is a lot of good that comes from its formal development in academia. :)

  11. Thanh says:

    Akhila, I would think that all things can be taught. Perhaps you meant, can it be taught in classrooms? Sure why not? If things cannot be taught, how do people learn? There are many ways to learn. Sometimes, somethings are meant to be taught in different ways, and classroom is just one structure. An innovative teacher can always reach out to his/her students.

    Anything can be taught – the message falls on the shoulder of the communicator.

    I agree with you that social entrepreneurship is based on the motivation to better people's lives.

    I disagree with you that “entrepreneurship [is] the hope of getting rich and famous.” Which entrepreneur said that? That is utterly incorrect to generalize and is a very broad statement.

    Entrepreneurship is about creating change or improve something. The distinction between “normal” entrepreneur and “social” entrepreneur is that a social entrepreneur seek to change social dynamics. Both kinds need profit to thrive, however, the degree varies. You may be mistaken social entrepreneurship with philanthropy.

    I think that a post like this would be better with opinions from entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs, unless it's a personal opinion from your own experience as an entrepreneur and social entrepreneur. Otherwise, this post casts the wrong generalization on the good work that both kinds of entrepreneurs bring to the world.

    We all have benefited from entrepreneurs for their pursuit of “profit and fame,” like Gates, Dell, Jobs, Facebook, Disquis, Twitter, etc. But trust me, entrepreneurs don't begin with those criteria; they seek to improve or change something, profit and fame are results of the value they create.

    Similarly, try telling Acumen Fund and Kiva that they don't need to focus on generating profit for their projects, and they won't have funds to circulate to to their next borrower.

  12. Akhila says:

    Hi Thanh, thank you for the feedback! Now that I thought about it, the comment I made previously really does seem like a gross overgeneralization and I'm embarrassed to have made such assumptions. I think I have just been influenced to think that way by looking at certain blogs of entrepreneurs online, where they often talk about the desire that their venture succeeds so that they will become “millionaires.” I do think that for some entrepreneurs the desire to become rich and/or famous is a motivator. I also think that can be the same for some social entrepreneurs. However, I think the most successful social entrepreneurs will have a genuine passion for the social issue and for the people they want to serve over all else, including fame or fortune.

    I am sorry for my generalization and I totally agree that many entrepreneurs are motivated to better the world/solve an important problem/follow a passion/enjoy a different lifestyle, and many other things other than fame/money. Thank you for pointing it out. However you said my post casts a wrong generalization — there I think my original blog post still has merits since I simply was speaking of social enterprise. My main point was that it cannot necessarily be taught and so questioning the value of Social Enterprise courses in the classroom and suggesting that social entrepreneurs get into the field or gain specialty knowledge in order to be better at their field/practice area and focus more heavily on that first (and the business skills come later). Sorry if this is confusing.

    I also was not saying that social entrepreneurs do not need to make a profit; certainly they do, but my point was they are not making it for themselves. Indeed the goal of getting profit is secondary and is done only as part of their social mission and bottom line. Any profit made is not given to the entrepreneur or shareholders but is reinvested back in the business. I would argue that this focus on profit is very different from earning profit in order to pay back shareholders or make the company itself very successful. Ultimately the bottom line for many businesses is not a social issue/outcome but simply profit. I really do think that while both might pursue profit, this is done for very different reasons, and is used in very different ways as well.

    Sorry again for the generalization! It is also my personal opinion on the topic rather than from the perspective of a social entrepreneur, so I'm sorry if it's inaccurate!

  13. Akhila says:

    Hi Kim, thanks for stopping by!

    You're right, and ultimately I agree with you. I was being questioning in the post, but ultimately I too think that it's a great thing to have social entrepreneurship offerings in the classroom! It definitely will provide those with the vision some of the practical skills needed to become successful in this area. However — I would go beyond this and ask: can't the business skills be gained from more “traditional” business classes like marketing, finance, accounting, non-profit management, organizational structure, etc? What NEW skills are social entrepreneurship majors giving students…beyond the knowledge of what social entrepreneurship means and entails? That is still something that seems up in the air to me.

    I love your comment about “removing the false dichotomy between business and morality in academia.” That is a great point, and I completely agree. I think by simply offering these courses in MBA programs, schools can begin to change the game. No longer are MBAs only for those going into finance or consulting. Indeed, it provides the perception to the general public that entering the social enterprise arena is possible and even desirable for graduates from top MBA programs. It brings social enterprise into the mainstream and perhaps even piques those not interested in it already to at least learn more about it. Even if they do not go on to become social entrepreneurs, they will gain some understanding of the area/sector which will help them become better advocates throughout their lifetime – regardless of what they end up doing with their degree.

  14. davidlapedis says:

    Hi Akhila, Great Post!

    I think you answer your own question, vision and passion cannot be taught. However, I think nonprofits and social entrepreneurs have much to learn from the business world. In my experience, I've worked in a couple of nonprofits and strategy and attention to detail that you often find in corporate work was missing.

    That being said, I think people who are driven to really have an impact and serve others, find a way. They don't let obstacles or anything stop them. That is the most beautiful thing about Bornstein's work, that these people don't stop. I imagine if we all were aware of our personal vision the way these social entrepreneurs are aware of theirs.

  15. Akhila says:

    David, thanks for your message! I definitely agree with you that there's a lot non-profits (and most social enterprises ARE non-profits) can learn from businesses. However, the problem for many non-profits I feel, is that resources are so constrained that they simply CAN'T have the same high-level strategy in everything from marketing to administration to fundraising. So, that's one area which I feel is really easy to critique but coming up with the actual solutions at zero cost in a resource-constrained environment can be difficult. However many organizations like Acumen Fund I feel have achieved really strong attempts at integrating business strategy into their work. Smaller nonprofits not so well endowed, though, have their work cut out for them.

    I also agree with you though that people who are driven do so without necessarily needing to take courses on social enterprise. Thanks again for the great comment!

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