Developing a Generation of Social Entrepreneurs

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Monday, March 27, 2023
By Sarah Smith
Photo by iStock/Deagreez
Nonprofit Enactus provides a curriculum, runs training programs, and hosts competitions that help students build skills in social entrepreneurship.
  • Today’s students want to lead businesses that focus on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits.
  • The best way for students to learn relevant skills is through creating their own enterprises that tackle some of society’s pressing needs.
  • Social enterprise competitions spark urgency and encourage students to develop real-world solutions.

The next generation of business leaders will need to build a matrix of skill sets that prepare them to run profitable businesses while also being conscientious stewards of human and environmental resources. For these reasons, business schools have an increasing obligation to offer students opportunities to develop leadership skills in social entrepreneurship.

The best way for schools to teach students these skills is to couple theoretical knowledge with practical hands-on learning. Students must have opportunities to innovate, lead their own social enterprises, and achieve real community impact with minimal personal or financial risk.

These are goals we strive to achieve through Enactus, a global experiential education network that partners with more than 2,000 colleges and universities in 33 countries. Enactus offers universities co-curricular opportunities built around global social entrepreneurship activities and programs that encourage students to tackle society’s most pressing needs.

We believe that social entrepreneurship programs are most successful when participating groups are rich in ideas and experience. Graphic design students, for example, can create dynamic marketing materials for any initiative, while science and engineering students can build the prototypes for technical innovation. This is why Enactus encourages institutions to cultivate multidisciplinary teams of students from both inside and outside their colleges of business.

Through our efforts, we have learned three critical lessons about what supports a successful experiential learning model. First, experiential learning is most effective when it is student-led and involves multifaceted collaboration with external partners. Second, experiential learning opportunities are especially valuable when they allow students to work with each other across disciplinary, cultural, and national boundaries. Only then can participants share wide-ranging ideas, learn from each other’s experiences, and gain new perspectives.

Finally, if we want to train students to become future leaders who will truly help their organizations make a positive societal impact, we must offer them experiential learning that immerses them in scenarios where they can hone their social entrepreneurship skills. When programs meet all three of these criteria, students will be positioned to bring about real change and advance progress in society at a macro level.

Lessons in Leadership

Enactus provides students with training in social entrepreneurship skills and runs competitions that allow students to practice those skills. Guided by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Enactus offers students access to a spectrum of worldwide networking and mentoring opportunities, as well as funding opportunities through our network of businesses, foundations, and other NGOs. Because of our partnerships with these organizations, Enactus offers its programs without collecting membership fees from universities or students in most cases.

Enactus’ co-curricular program provides students with training in power skills (also known as soft skills) such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and intercultural fluency. These competencies broadly align with the categories of skills that the World Economic Forum says are critical for the future of work: collaboration, problem-solving, creativity and innovation, self-confidence, global competence, and global citizenship.

Students receive training in power skills (also known as soft skills) such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, teamwork, and intercultural fluency.

Currently, Enactus students receive a detailed instructional handbook that guides them through launching and implementing new projects. In the fall, Enactus will launch a new global curriculum. It will complement the handbook and will include resources to help amplify the organization’s impact on and through students. The new global online curriculum will take approximately 16 to 20 hours to complete. It is divided into three modules containing three to five lessons each, and each lesson lasts about 45 minutes to an hour.

While all Enactus coursework is optional, students have an incentive to participate: They can earn certificates of completion and badges they can display on LinkedIn and other online platforms. To measure learning, students complete both pre- and post-curriculum assessments and report data-driven outcomes. They demonstrate mastery of the lessons through the activities they execute within their communities.

By completing the training, students develop frameworks that will help them create innovative solutions that can have local impact and global significance.

Practical Applications

Once students have finished the curriculum, they are ready to participate in actual projects. Each university has its own Enactus team that is supported by a faculty member who serves in an advisory role. Together, team members decide which projects they want to be involved in.

Some teams choose to continue working on legacy projects that have been started by previous groups. Others identify new community needs and launch original projects. While the teams determine how they wish to organize their enterprises, Enactus suggests that students take on typical roles such as head of marketing and media, head of fundraising, and head of operations. Students share their successes via regular communications through the Enactus network and at national and global competitions.

Many schools find that the best way to get students to think about social enterprise projects is to encourage their participation in competitions. Competitions not only spark innovation and urgency, they also allow students to move from solving theoretical problems to implementing practical solutions. As students engage in formal presentations, participate in question-and-answer forums, and receive constructive feedback, they build their confidence and improve their communication and presentation skills.

Two Enactus competitions that provide students with problem-solving opportunities are the GE Global Lean Challenge and the Ford Community College Challenge (Ford C3). As sponsors of these events, GE and Ford also supply financial support, curricular input, and mentoring opportunities.

The GE Global Lean Challenge is open to any Enactus student in Brazil, China, India, and Ghana. After receiving lessons in lean management designed by GE and delivered by Enactus, students visit a regional GE plant. To apply what they have learned, students identify specific issues they have encountered at the plant, then pitch sustainable solutions that use lean management concepts.

For instance, in 2022, a team from Brazil proposed creating efficient induction engine baffles by using sisal fiber insulation. The four students on the team were from Instituto Federal do Espírito Santo Campus Vitória, Universidade de São Paulo Campus de São Carlos, and Mackenzie Presbyterian University’s Campus Campinas.

To measure their learning, students took paired t-tests before and after participating in the 2022 GE Global Lean Challenge, and the results showed a statistically significant increase in their knowledge of both lean concepts and design thinking. One student commented, “I believe my problem-solving, teamwork, and critical thinking skills have improved, and I will apply them in any future projects with the lean approach in mind.” Another student was hired by GE two months later to work at the plant that was the focus of her project.

Outcomes like these demonstrate the value of experiential programs that encourage students to build technical skills, develop power skills, and leverage beneficial professional relationships.

Students deliver proposals tied to one of three broad categories: driving social mobility, changing the way people move through smart mobility, or building sustainable communities.

The Ford College Community Challenge takes a different approach: It encourages students to develop sustainable solutions for pressing local needs. Students deliver proposals tied to at least one of three broad categories: driving social mobility, changing the way people move by tapping the principles of smart mobility, and building sustainable communities. Teams whose proposals are accepted receive grant money from the Ford Company to implement their solutions. Last year, 36 teams from nine countries qualified for Ford C3 project scaling grants, and 29 teams received them.

One project was conducted by a team of Brazilian students who developed a workforce readiness program called Illuminaire, which prepares youths from public high schools in the Itabuna municipality to participate in the job market. The high school students take lessons called Knowledge Trails, which are crafted specifically to meet the technical and personal development objectives of area companies. By upskilling high school students, Illuminaire facilitates the social mobility of marginalized young people, helps them grow their earnings, reduces family insecurity, and increases family income.

Programs like Ford C3 lead to long-term and wide-ranging solutions that benefit communities. Because such programs provide students with practical hands-on experience, they make it easier for young entrepreneurs to enter the workforce.

Collective Impact

During its 50 years of existence, Enactus has helped its participants have a positive effect on the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits. Today, program graduates lead social enterprises across all industries, create positive environmental and social transformation, and apply global learning to localized problems around the world. Their collective impact is demonstrated by three companies that resulted from Enactus projects:

  • Erthos is a Canadian company that manufactures a plant-based alternative for single-use plastics. It was co-founded by Nuha Siddiqui and Kritika Tyagi as part of a project begun at the University of Toronto. Erthos has raised 5.5 million USD in funding and is generating six-figure revenues. Siddiqui and Tyagi are on the 2023 Forbes North America 30 Under 30 list for Social Impact.
  • RiceUp is a program that helps farmers “rise up” out of poverty through financial literacy education and a mobile app that connects them directly to consumers. Elvin Laceda created it while he was a student at Brigham Young University–Hawaii, and he later turned the project into a business. The program has improved the lives of 72,500 farmers, created 945 jobs, and generated an economic impact of 65 million USD.
  • CO2Invert is a registered company that converts carbon dioxide to ethanol. It was started by a team led by Paolo Licata at the University of Udine in Italy. Today, Licata also consults with other startups and small businesses to help them grow, and he mentors young people on entrepreneurship, business skills, and global goals.

The success of these young leaders proves how valuable it is for students to have hands-on learning experiences dedicated to societal impact. When students participate in co-curricular projects, they demonstrate their interest in leadership. They also invest in their futures when they learn how to build businesses, communicate, organize, analyze needs, and meet objectives.

Business schools that make room for student-led social enterprise activities provide skills training that business leaders need. They also develop a pipeline of professionals deeply committed to solving global challenges and making the world a better place.

Sarah Smith
Director of Communications, Enactus
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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