By Jacen Greene
At Portland State University (PSU), Oregon’s largest and most diverse campus, sustainability is embedded in programs and curriculum throughout our seven colleges and schools. At our School of Business Administration, a gold-ranked Net Impact student chapter, award-winning sustainability case writing program, and the top-ranked small MBA program in the world for sustainability are testament to the commitment of students, faculty and staff. We saw an opportunity to build on this success by expanding our sustainability focus to include social innovation and social entrepreneurship. In doing so, we believe that we can more fully apply the unique effectiveness and rigor of business practices to the work of creating a more just and resilient world.
We follow Phills Jr., Dieglmeier and Miller’s definition of social innovation as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals.” Social entrepreneurship is the development or application of such innovations through entrepreneurial activity, whether by starting a new organization or by implementing creative new approaches within existing nonprofits, businesses, government agencies, schools and universities.
Our program, Impact Entrepreneurs at Portland State University, teaches social innovation and social entrepreneurship through field studies, undergraduate and graduate university courses, management training for businesses and nonprofits around the world, and a social innovation incubator open to nonprofits and social enterprises started by students or community members. Each program is co-created with stakeholders and managed using the same tools and approaches we teach others.
Our latest initiative, an online certificate in social innovation, combines experiential fieldwork with online learning in a series of courses open to anyone—not just students—and meant to be accessed from anywhere in the world. PSU students earn academic credit, and working professionals earn continuing education units and a professional certificate. By combining these groups into the same courses, the educational experience better represents the real-world diversity essential for successful innovation.
We believe that true innovation occurs at the margins of traditional sectors, where the overlap of differing experiences and unique perspectives creates new insight. Diversity, empathy and engagement fuel the social innovations moving us toward a more sustainable future, and, when coupled with personal and organizational accountability and rigorous business practices, help us develop scalable, effective and long-lasting solutions. This approach helped earn us a place in Ashoka U’s prestigious Changemaker Campus Consortium, but we view that honor as a pathway, not a destination. As much as we teach, we also learn, and we have much to learn from our students, community members, and everyone we meet and work with in Portland and throughout the global community.
Image credit: Social enterprise field study, Cambodia, 2013
Jacen Greene is the Program Manager for Social Enterprise Initiatives at Impact Entrepreneurs, an initiative of Portland State University’s School of Business Administration.