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Learning to Lead with Impact

Undergraduate Programs Are Good News for the Impact Economy

The popularity of social enterprise programs at graduate schools of business in the United States, as well as around the world, is no longer news. Driven by students’ and employers’ desire to combine financial returns with scalable societal and environmental outcomes, business schools have led the way in offering curriculum, dedicated faculty, and experiential learning opportunities in social impact. In the United States alone, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, for example, the Center for Social Innovation gives students the tools to bring social and environmental change to the world and includes a Social Entrepreneurship Hub. At Harvard Business School, more than 90 faculty members engage in research projects, course development, and other activities in social enterprise.

Much attention is paid to such business school programs, research centers, accelerators, and other initiatives aimed to equip students interested in social entrepreneurship and impact investing with the skills, leadership traits, and pathways to impact careers. As Cathy Clark, Faculty Director at The Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, argues, when done right, these programs “will help ensure our impact investing work is based on the highest standards of evidence, and is respectful of multi-sector stakeholder views of how to create impact and value.”

Undergraduate students in classroom

Universities can be instrumental in proactively creating an impact economy by doing more in every aspect of their operations, including by investing their endowments for social and environmental impact. Another powerful way institutions of higher education will influence the future of the impact economy is by making social and environmental impact a cornerstone of undergraduate degrees, including as a part of a well-rounded liberal arts education. Beyond the hard skills gained in theoretical and practical business and economics training, offering students relevant values and competencies, such as empathy and inclusion, will serve impact leaders in any profession, not to mention as customers, investors, and citizens.

Universities can be instrumental in proactively creating an impact economy by doing more in every aspect of their operations

Indeed, younger generations’ socially conscious attitudes have been mirrored in their educational aspirations. Research shows that, like the millennials who preceded them, Generation Z cares about the values and sustainability of companies when making consumer choices. They are also entrepreneurial, driven by their interest in pursuing original ideas; their native digital skills, which lower barriers to innovation; and their disillusionment with traditional career paths.

Student at blackboard in classroom

At the intersection of young people’s desire for a purpose-driven life and their entrepreneurial proclivity lies impact entrepreneurship, creating and scaling sustainable businesses to make social and environmental change. To respond, social entrepreneurship programs have been flourishing at colleges. For example, the top program for entrepreneurship in the United States, Babson College, boasts the Lewis Institute, which promises “to inspire action for creating social innovation” through resident experts, campus talks, and hands-on learning opportunities. Furthermore, the College brings this education to an even younger cadre of students, offering middle and high school students Babson’s entrepreneurial methodology for creating economic, social, and environmental value through the Youth Impact Lab. A similar program is also available through EXPLO, an experiential educational program founded in 1976 out of MIT, which offers high school students the opportunity to earn college credits over the summer while studying entrepreneurship with social impact.

At the intersection of young people’s desire for a purpose-driven life and their entrepreneurial proclivity lies impact entrepreneurship, creating and scaling sustainable businesses to make social and environmental change.

In New York, the bastion of global business and finance, Columbia University’s Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Design Initiative includes the project-based Design for Social Innovation course, where students work directly with prominent impact organizations. Undergraduates are also included in a university-wide start-up competition which also offers a social enterprise track. “We teach them how to make their ideas viable,” says Chris McGarry, Senior Director for Entrepreneurship in the University Office of Alumni and Development, “undergraduate students are passionate about their ideas, causes, and impact, but they still need to learn how to build a sustainable enterprise, whether it is nonprofit or for-profit.” McGarry adds that undergraduate entrepreneurship programs give high-achieving students, who typically take well-structured academic paths to get into competitive universities such as Columbia, a chance to face uncertainty, take risks, and even fail, with a safety net. Over at Columbia Business School, the well-established Tamer Center for Social Enterprise “educates leaders to use business knowledge, entrepreneurial skills, and management tools to address social and environmental challenges.” One of the courses the Center offers, “Social Venture Incubator,” is also open to undergraduates and aims to foster cross-campus access and collaboration for students launching startups with a tangible impact on people or the planet. Shortly after her graduation in 2017, Iva Gumnishka, a Columbia student who took a similar course called “Launching Social Ventures,” founded Humans in the Loop, which employs and trains refugees to provide remote data services to companies. She says that preparing for her social enterprise as an undergraduate student at Columbia’s graduate schools gave her the opportunity to “study topics that were practical and hands-on in contrast to the liberal arts curriculum, which is traditionally more theoretical.”

Graduation cap raised highSocial entrepreneurship education is not exclusive to large national universities with graduate schools, and liberal arts colleges may be one of the best settings for educating future impact leaders, especially if they incorporate practical learning. Colby College, a highly ranked small liberal arts college in Maine, is starting its own entrepreneurship education journey, and social impact is a big part of the conversation on campus. Todd Halloran, a private equity investor who has funded a new lab for entrepreneurship at his alma mater, believes that the benefits of entrepreneurship training go beyond the ability to launch a venture. “Not every student will start a business, but exposure to problem solving, innovation, and collaboration will help in any career.” Halloran envisions that the Lab, which will launch in Fall 2022, will convene entrepreneurial alumni to be a resource to students. It will also draw upon the expertise of Colby faculty in issues that grab the headlines around the world along with the students’ attention, such as climate change, public health, water safety, social justice, and more. “Social entrepreneurship is at the top of students’ minds,” Halloran says, reflecting on his conversations with students in designing the Lab. The students’ growing interest in such issues has also led to new conversations in economics and finance classes and challenged the faculty to expand their expertise, according to Yang Fan, Associate Professor of Economics and the Faculty Chair of the Colby Investment Club. “The Halloran Lab for Innovation will give the students the chance to apply what they discuss theoretically in class,” he adds. While Colby students may be well aware of and energized by finding solutions to global challenges, Halloran hopes that the Lab’s collaborations with local organizations in Maine will also offer eye-opening opportunities to students: “We don’t want to take away from the students’ global ambitions, but it is also important to make a difference in your own backyard.”

As the future of work demands innovative, entrepreneurial employees and young people seek fulfilling careers that give them the autonomy and purpose, along with countless local and global challenges that require scalable, sustainable solutions, colleges will need to continue to expand their impact entrepreneurship programs. Fortunately, it seems that they will have an increasing pool of alumni, donors, and community partners to support them.

National universities impact initatives


Liberal arts colleges impact initiatives

The tables above include top five undergraduate institutions in national universities and liberal arts colleges categories, according to one commonly referenced ranking, in order to provide a glimpse of the diverse course offerings, student activities, and other initiatives in undergraduate social entrepreneurship education in the United States. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Selen Ucak a social impact professional working at the intersection of private sector and international development. She currently leads a global community of refugee-led and refugee-supporting businesses and social enterprises at the Refugee Investment Network (RIN), as well as serving as consultant on additional projects. Prior to RIN, she supported ... Read more

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