During the late 1970s, Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus responded to widespread poverty and famine in his country by starting a bank with the sole purpose of giving small loans to poor villagers. Since then, Grameen Bank has grown into a self-sustaining institution with over seven million clients. Yunus’s formula for social change: a good idea, determination and entrepreneurial skill.
Even before Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, the idea of “social entrepreneurship” – the application of entrepreneurial principles to address social issues – was catching on in both the non-profit and business sectors. Today, many people are turning to business school to learn how to lead world-changing initiatives of their own, as founders of non-profits, philanthropists, or as corporate leaders.
Several of the world’s top-ranked business schools – including Stanford, Oxford, NYU, ESADE and Harvard – have responded to this demand, and now offer dedicated programs and concentrations for students interested in the so-called triple bottom line – planet, people and (um…oh yeah) profit. These programs teach and refine the skills needed to grow, sustain and spread socially conscious initiatives.
“Social Entrepreneurship is a hot topic at business schools right now,“ says Rich Leimsider of the Aspen Institute’s Business and Society Program. The institute’s bi-annual survey of MBA programs, Beyond Grey Pinstripes, will come out in the fall of 2007, and is expected to reflect a “dramatic increase“ in the number and variety of social entrepreneurship courses offered by business schools.
“There has been a multi-fold increase in the amount of core business courses we've seen this year that address Social Entrepreneurship in some capacity,” says Leimsider. “Student interest doubtlessly plays some role.”
According to the University Network for Social Entrepreneurship, social enterprise was the number two area of interest (behind finance) for the 2006 incoming MBA class at Columbia Business School. CBS has built up a Social Enterprise Program that offers concentrations in social entrepreneurship, public and non-profit management, international development and corporate social responsibility, along with courses in healthcare, education, arts management, community development and venture philanthropy.
This trend in business schools may also reach students who plan on returning to the corporate sector after finishing their MBA. Programs like the Center for Responsible Business at Haas School of Business (Berkeley) and the Institute for Corporate Responsibility at George Washington University, for example, focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR).
CSR has become increasingly in demand as some of the world’s biggest corporations scramble to improve relations with shareholders and the general public. According to Forbes magazine, over half of all MBA programs – regardless of their focus - now require students to complete a course in corporate social responsibility.
Many students, however, begin MBA programs with the idea of starting something of their own – anything from a small non-profit in their hometown to a large, sustainable initiative that reaches thousands of people. Ashoka, a global support network of social innovators, defines a social entrepreneur as someone that applies new ideas to affect wide-scale change - not an easy task.
According to Gregory Dees, chair of the Center for Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke’s Fuqua Business School, MBA programs can introduce students to valuable skills they can apply to the non-profit sector.
"Business doesn't know better than the non-profit world,“ Dees told Time magazine back in 2005. “It just provides another set of tools that we should look at using for social good. And we should use any tools we can."
Photo: JimW-Sustainability 76 / Creative Commons (cropped)