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Social Entrepreneurs: So Hot Right Now

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Friday October 16th, 2009 | 1 Comment

ban-startup-friday

apple_booksSocially-minded startup ventures are nothing new, but their numbers are growing–just look to our weekly Friday feature on startups. And it’s not just well-off do-gooders or disillusioned cube-dwellers who are deciding to start companies that adhere to the triple bottom line. MBA programs with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship are totally in right now. The Wall Street Journal even says so.

In highlighting the trend, WSJ interviewed Jeff Denby, who launched the sustainable underwear company PACT (a startup we featured earlier this month) after graduating from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008. He told the paper that his interests in starting a socially-responsible enterprise was fostered by his Cal colleagues and faculty, and given a boost through guest lectures by like-minded entrepreneurs.

It’s no coincidence, since Triple Pundit’s founder and its managing editor both hold MBAs in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management, that recent grads and current students in that and similar program often grace the pages of this site–both as contributors and as entrepreneurs. Take Sandra Kwak. Armed with her MBA in sustainable management she started a energy management product for small businesses called Powerzoa.

Earlier this fall, Net Impact, a nonprofit working to encourage and nurture socially-responsible enterprises by working with schools (specifically MBA programs), entrepreneurs and large corporations, issued its annual report on the state of business education, as seen through the lens of sustainability. It found that in many cases a focus on sustainability is taking hold in academics through direct actions by students, who generate demand for adding courses focused on social and environmental issues to the curriculum.

Many business schools have also started incorporating ethical pledges or oaths which students sign as a pledge to make a positive impact on the business world. And while even Harvard Business School students are signing such an oath, but in reporting that, 3P guest auther Matthew Madden also noted:  “According to a recent survey of business school students conducted by the Aspen Institute in 2007, the number of respondents with a goal of ‘having a positive impact on society’ decreases as students advance towards their degrees.  This survey contends that students enter business school with one set of values and graduate with a different set of values.”

So is all this excitement over integrating social responsibility and the people-planet-profit triple bottom line into traditional business school programs just a fad? Will it fade away if and when “green business” and “social entrepreneurs” lose their buzz appeal and consumers place less emphasis on products or services that marketed as being green, or fair trade, or locally sourced? Jerome Engel, who chairs the New Venture Creation and Venture Capital Program at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business doesn’t think so. He told the Wall Street Journal: “There may be a superficial percentage who think it’s stylish to care, but the bulk of consumers are substantive. It’s important that social enterprises aren’t just public relations stunts. People have values, and they want to link those to their identity. Capitalistic ventures that do social entrepreneurship well can deliver a good product while building up a bank account of good will.”

If you’re thinking about B-school and envision starting a social enterprise one day, check out the Social Enterprise Reporter, which rates the best MBA programs for social enterprise. Also, the Aspen Institute conducts a biennial survey called Beyond Grey Pinstripes, which ranks the 100 top full-time MBA programs “that are integrating issues of social and environmental stewardship into curricula and research.”

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  • William J. Broderick

    I’m excited to see corporate structures like L3C being created by states like Illinois and Vermont. This low profit, limited liability company may be ideal for social entrepreneurs.

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