News & Events
By Carlos Penaherrera, dual MBA/MPP candidate
Attracting and maintaining engaged students represents one of the biggest challenges faced by social entrepreneurship initiatives at universities. The session “How to build it, so they will come” presented interesting and diverse examples of how some schools are addressing this challenge. From student-led programs, all the way to initiatives hosted and run by specific departments (business school, Law, among others), every alternative showed some success in engaging students. However, the numbers that have come so far are, in their opinion, still below its highest potential.
At Marquette University, the “Dorm Fund” initiative, a student-run venture capital firm that invests exclusively in undergraduate student-run companies, has created a thriving hub for both social entrepreneurs and students that want to support them. The investment team is comprised of student investors or associates that evaluate ideas presented by entrepreneurs and make decisions to provide funding between $1K-5K to help accelerate new ventures. This program has created an experiential learning space for students, beyond the traditional theory-based academic formats of other initiatives, and has been widely welcomed across the student body. Since its inception, this initiative has received over 20 applications for funds every year, and many students have become involved.
Another student-led initiative, “Changemaker Central” at ASU promotes social entrepreneurship through diverse programs and resources that foster community service, entrepreneurship, service learning, and high impact careers (AmeriCorps, PeaceCorps and Teach for America) among students. This initiative allows students to meet, work and join new networks and collaborative enterprises while taking advantage of ASU’s resources and opportunities for engagement. A student leadership team oversees the program and guides support students find the best-suited alternative to developing their interest in social entrepreneurship.
While these initiatives are widely considered to be successful and have engaged a large number of students over the year, there is still a concern among the schools around the best way to keep these students compromised with the programs for extended periods. Clearly, there is no one-size fit all solution, and the best alternative will depend on the particular characteristics of the student body at each school, and primarily, it will rely on the primary objectives pursued by each school.
There are tremendous opportunities for universities to make immensely valuable contributions to the social impact sector and initiatives such as Changemaker Central and the Dorm Fund are powerful tools for achieving this purpose. However, the entirely student-led approach might not be successful for other schools, and as we have seen, sometimes, lack of continuity, limited resources, and specific agendas imposed by individual departments could compromise the integrity of the programs and finally lead to their termination. The learning of social entrepreneurs is a different matter and based on the lessons and experiences shared by the school during I believe that while no one solution will be suitable for all schools, successful social entrepreneurial initiatives that attract and engage more students to have some or all the following characteristics:
• Independence: follow their own agendas, remain faithful to their specific mission and goals and are not biased towards the specific objectives of some departments.
• Clear purpose: specific objectives and actions undoubtedly intended to achieve these goals that increase the legitimacy of the program and give students the guarantee that their efforts are serving a meaningful purpose.
• Diversity: social entrepreneurship programs sometimes focus only on attracting people that have a background or experience related to the field. By promoting and attacking talent from different backgrounds, social entrepreneurship initiatives increase its learning potential and credibility. Diverse backgrounds bring new perspectives and connections that could help to achieve social change more successfully.
• Practical Learning: individuals learn most effectively outside the walls of schools in ways that are very difficult to offer in strictly academic settings. Moreover, for social change to happen on a broad scale, social entrepreneurship programs must provide students the opportunity to be “on the field,” to be in contact with the people that need their help.
Universities are a vast and vital resource for society and students play a crucial role in the social impact sector. It is challenging to attract this population and keep it engaged, however, programs that offer a wide array of resources and tools, that facilitates communication among students, and that are independent, diverse environments and offer practical learning opportunities are more likely to be successful at this task and more importantly, at achieving social change.