People, Planet, Profits—Peace

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Sunday, September 1, 2019
By Tricia Bisoux
Photo by iStock/LumiNola
Two global experiential learning initiatives show students the power they will have as business leaders to change the world for the better—or for the worse.
Most experiential learning is designed to help students develop their creativity, communication, and critical thinking skills. But could a single experience be even more ambitious? Could it also expand students’ cross-cultural understanding, build their global network of friends, and completely change their perspective on the purpose of business? Could it turn students into business leaders who prioritize responsible business practices, preserve the planet’s resources, protect people’s welfare, and promote global peace?

These lofty goals lie at the heart of two distinctive global learning experiences, each launched in 2012. The first, the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge sponsored by the University of San Diego (USD) in California, invites student teams at universities worldwide to imagine new business ideas that generate profits while solving social problems.

The second, Summer Campus, is sponsored by the Russian Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), based in Moscow. This two-week global summit convenes more than 200 students from schools worldwide to attend classes, hear high-profile guest speakers, discuss social issues, and work on team projects related to each year’s chosen theme.

While Summer Campus is packed with business courses and guest presentations, its bigger impact might be the way it helps students adopt more unorthodox ways of thinking about business, explains Sergey Myasoedov, RANEPA’s rector and dean of its Institute of Business Studies. Students often have been educated “to see only a small window of life,” he says. Summer Campus was created to encourage them to see the world from a broader global perspective.

“We want students to make friendships with people from as many different countries as possible,” he says. “Then, wherever they go they will have friends who can advise them about how to do business in their countries.”

In the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge, teams of undergraduates and graduate students compete for part of US$50,000 in seed money to pursue their business ideas. But the purpose of the event is not to launch new businesses, says Amitkumar Kakkad, clinical professor of operations management at USD’s School of Business.

“We don’t want to focus on the teams that win as much as on how the experience will affect the hundreds of students who participate,” says Kakkad, who also is the director of USD’s Center for Peace and Commerce, which runs the challenge. “MBAs who take part in the challenge tell us that it changed their career trajectories. They now define social impact not in terms of joining a charity or starting a nonprofit, but in terms of what they can do to make for-profit businesses more responsible. To me, that’s the biggest win we can have.”

Creating Solutions

USD’s first Global Social Innovation Challenge was started by Patricia Márquez, then a faculty member of the university’s School of Business. She viewed the challenge as a way to hone students’ passion for innovation and entrepreneurship, while also instilling in them a sense of responsibility toward society. The brief for each student team was to create social solutions that were replicable, financially sustainable, and measurable in their social impact.

At first, USD invited only students from its School of Business and Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies, where Márquez is now dean. Over time, the challenge grew, first to include students from other USD departments, then from universities across California, then from those across the United States and Mexico. Last year, USD invited students from universities anywhere in the world.

To participate, universities pay $2,000 by an early-bird deadline and $3,000 after that date—these fees cover about 10 percent of the cost of the challenge, which can reach up to $500,000, says Kakkad. An endowment from a donor helps fund the rest.

The challenge comprises three elimination rounds. In the first round, which starts in February, students work from their home campuses where they form teams, choose social or environmental problems to solve, and study what others already have done to address them. “Students must first identify what has been tried so they don’t end up trying something that others already have discovered is not going to work,” says Kakkad.

Each university chooses which of its teams will advance to the second round, held in April. At this stage, teams develop their ideas and work to ensure their solutions present more social benefits than drawbacks. Finally, in May, universities choose one to two teams to send to the June finals, held on USD’s campus. Finalists pitch their ideas to potential investors, who choose the winners and allocate the prize money among them. 

Each school determines how it will structure the first and second rounds of the challenge. To make that process easier, USD gives participating schools access to its own template for running the first two stages, as well as to online resources such as workshops, speaker series, educational materials, and guides for mentors, coaches, and judges.

“Universities can leverage our resources as much or as little as they like during the first and second rounds,” says Kakkad. Some schools make the challenge a required part of a social entrepreneurship course, while others open it to students campuswide. One school elected to support just one team, which already had been working on a social venture, for all three rounds.

Schools also can determine what level of financial support, if any, they wish to provide their students. For instance, this year, USD offered $500 in initial funding to teams on its campus that advanced to the second round and $3,500 in funding to teams that advanced to the third round.

Making a profit and benefiting society are not mutually exclusive.

Each spring, judges choose a range of winners. In 2018, judges awarded $16,500 to Team Charcoal, a group from Heritage Christian College in Ghana. Its business, Environmental Solutions, has patented a method for turning human waste into sterile charcoal briquettes that can be efficiently burned for indoor cooking and heating. This product simultaneously addresses three social challenges faced by many people in emerging economies, says Kakkad. It “benefits the environment because people no longer have to rely on foraging wood from trees, it improves people’s health because it reduces indoor smoke inhalation, and it cleans up the community because it’s taking waste off the streets.”

The founder of another winning venture, San Diego-based Dreams for Change, was inspired by the fact that homeless individuals often cannot find safe, restful places to sleep—which means they might be too tired during the day to take classes, apply for jobs, or pursue other activities to improve their situations. Because many homeless individuals own vehicles, Dreams for Change created its Safe Parking Program, which provides safe overnight parking options that do not violate local ordinances that prohibit people from sleeping in their cars. In addition, the company’s founder launched a fleet of food trucks that sells healthy meals that can be purchased with food stamps.

Best of all, each of these businesses is profitable, says Kakkad, showing that making a profit and benefiting society are not mutually exclusive.

Kakkad loves to share such success stories, but he also is quick to point out that the primary objective of the Fowler Global Social Innovation Challenge is not to generate social ventures. Instead, its objective is to help as many students as possible understand the power they will have as business leaders to change the world for better or for worse. 

He points to the following analogy to illustrate his point: Imagine that two people are walking toward each other along on a narrow path. There is not enough room for them to pass each other comfortably, so they have three choices. They can barrel past each other with indifference, not caring if the other falls. They can pass each other with malice, deliberately knocking the other out of the way. Or, they can pass each other with care, coming to a mutual solution that allows them both to continue unharmed.

Business leaders must make similar choices as they chart the path forward for their organizations, says Kakkad. “Unless upper-level business executives decide that their businesses must be conscious of the impact of their actions, then as a society, we’re going to be just like the parents of teenage kids. Rather than teach our teenagers to clean up their room, we clean it for them only to see them make the mess again. It becomes a perpetual cycle,” he says. “Unless we force businesses to become part of the solution, they will continue either creating or exacerbating the world’s problems. We can’t rely only on the social sector and government to succeed.”

Cultural Ambassadors

RANEPA’s Summer Campus was created because the school’s faculty wanted to craft an event that would expose its own students to wide-ranging perspectives—from politicians, economists, scientists, business leaders, Nobel Prize winners, athletes, actors, and other “dreamers,” explains Myasoedov. “Once we started doing that, we understood that this event could be global,” he says. “So, we started to invite students to our campus from partner schools around the world.”

Undergraduate students from universities on every continent apply to participate in each year’s Campus. A selection committee looks for students who demonstrate skills in creativity, organization, teamwork, and critical analysis; in addition, students must be conversant in English, and they cannot have participated in a past Campus.

Each July, chosen participants first fly into Moscow, where they spend time visiting cultural sites. They then take an overnight train ride to the city of Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, a progressive Muslim republic about 500 miles east of Moscow. Summer Campus participants pay only for their health insurance, visas, and airfare to Moscow. The cost of their food, lodging, and excursions is covered, partially by RANEPA and partially by the Tatarstan government. In 2018, Summer Campus brought together 212 students from 35 countries; of this group, 102 were foreign participants. 

Each year’s summit is dedicated to a pre-selected theme. Over two weeks, students explore that theme as they take classes, hear guest speakers, and work with tutors. They also work on solution-based projects in teams of up to 20 students each. At the end of the summit, teams present their ideas to other participants, event coordinators, and a panel of faculty and business leaders.

Past themes have included global entrepreneurship, for which students were asked to think about ways to inspire more people to adopt entrepreneurial mindsets, and the future of the university, for which students were asked to imagine what universities will look like in the year 2050. This year, students and speakers focused on innovation, not only in business and management, but also in culture, education, and the economy. This year also was the third year that the event included a “day of sustainable development,” during which speakers from companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever discussed the importance of sustainable business practices.

The larger goal of both events is to promote a more positive view of business in the world.

Past speakers have included Clyde Tuggle, a former vice president of Coca-Cola, who explored “ten ways to fail as an entrepreneur.” Marina Zhigalova-Ozkan, head of Disney Russia, has spoken to students about what it takes to maintain work-life balance and how she has overcome difficulties throughout her career.

Near summit’s end, RANEPA holds an evening program called “Cultural Kaleidoscope,” where participants are invited to present aspects of their individual nations. Some wear their nations’ folk costumes and explain their significance; others sing songs or read poems that are significant to their countries. “Nobody in the audience understands the language, but everyone understands the emotions,” says Natalya Demidova, Summer Campus director.

Demidova is also moved by the thought that students put into their team presentations. For example, during one Campus, students were asked to think of ways that RANEPA could better promote Summer Campus worldwide. Demidova says she “still gets goosebumps” thinking of one presentation, which she believes illustrates well the bonds that students form in Kazan. 

“The two students on stage spoke about the fact that we have so many participants living around the world. They talked about the impact those student ambassadors could have,” says Demidova. “They asked for our organization committee to turn around and look at the audience, where the students all had turned to show us a sheet of paper on their backs that read ‘I am your ambassador.’ This was very touching to me.”

As a result of this presentation, RANEPA launched a student ambassador program. The school now holds social media competitions on Instagram and Facebook, asking past participants to share their memories and promote the event to broader audiences. The winners of this competition are invited to return to the Campus a second time.

‘Solutions For a Peaceful World’

Demidova finds it especially satisfying to see friendships form at Summer Campus among students from vastly different worlds—friendships that continue to flourish long after the experience is over. “Our event promotes global understanding, communication, human values,” says Demidova. Students leave, she adds, with an appreciation that they have far more in common with people elsewhere in the world than they once thought.

These friendships even have included a romantic partnership between a woman from the United States and a man from Pakistan. The governments of these two nations aren’t exactly on friendly terms, Demidova emphasizes, but the more an understanding can develop between American and Pakistani citizens, the better the chance for improved relations between their countries.

Another Pakistani participant made a video in which he interviews his teammates about what they learned about Pakistan’s culture through interactions with him. Many had never met someone from his country before. In his video’s description, the student writes, “I was able to change the perceptions of the people from all over the world regarding Pakistan. Nothing else matters.”

“It’s so cool when we see their pictures on Instagram and they say, ‘Campus Reunion!’” says Demidova. “We are changing their minds and helping them make connections. There are loads of professional seminars and events that could help students boost their professional skills, but they will keep the ties they form at our Summer Campus forever.”

Of course, the larger goal for both Summer Campus and the Fowler Challenge is to promote a more positive view of the role of business in the world, among not only students and faculty, but leaders, government officials, and members of the public. However, Kakkad points out, that goal becomes harder to achieve each time companies exhibit bad corporate behavior in the name of boosting profits—whether it’s Enron manipulating electricity prices or Volkswagen artificially lowering the carbon dioxide emissions of its vehicles during government testing.

Kakkad believes business schools can do far more to encourage the view that it’s not enough for businesses to avoid doing harm—they also must benefit society. “We can expose students to the realization that their actions, directly or indirectly, can have a positive or negative impact on the world. We can teach them that it’s in their self-interest to do the right thing,” says Kakkad. “What better way to do that than to start early, when they are still in school?”

Business education might not guarantee that students will become CEOs, he continues, but it makes it more likely that they will be making important strategic decisions at organizations around the world. “We need solutions for a peaceful world, but unless business is part of the equation, those solutions will require a much longer and harder journey,” he argues. “If we are educating the leaders of tomorrow, we must teach them that whether they make a profit or serve society is not an ‘either/or equation.’ It’s an ‘and.’”

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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