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Get to Know Duke I&E: Matt Nash and Katherine Black, our Social Innovation Team

Published: 3 years ago | 0 comments

By Sarah Bender ‘16

Matt and Katherine are the heart of Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke, working across the Duke community to foster student efforts to create innovations that promote change.

Please describe your roles and responsibilities at Duke I&E. 

MN:  As managing director for the I&E social innovation and entrepreneurship “pillar,” I work closely with Katherine to develop and manage our curricular, co-curricular, and outreach programs.  I teach our introductory courses in social innovation, deliver skills-building workshops for students and practitioners, and provide coaching and connections to emerging social innovators across campus and beyond.  I also engage with social entrepreneurs, academics, and other practitioners around the world on a wide variety of issues and initiatives in the field of social innovation.

KB: I am responsible for assisting in the planning and coordination of educational programming and co-curricular student programs related to social innovation and social entrepreneurship across the entire university. This includes providing support to student organizations, resources and guidance to students interested in social innovation, helping to manage our social innovation incubator, organizing events, as well as managing the DukeEngage Detroit program.

What does social entrepreneurship mean to you?  

Matt:  Our colleague and mentor, the late Prof. Greg Dees, was globally recognized as the academic pioneer of the field of social entrepreneurship.  In his seminal essay, “The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship” and subsequent writings, Greg defined social entrepreneurship as the process of pursuing innovative solutions to social problems.  More specifically, social entrepreneurs adopt a mission to create and sustain social value. They relentlessly pursue opportunities to serve this mission, while continuously adapting and learning.  Social entrepreneurs act boldly, not constrained by resources currently in hand.  They hold themselves accountable for achieving the social mission and use resources wisely.  They draw upon the best thinking in both the business and nonprofit worlds and operate in all kinds of organizations: large and small; new and old; religious and secular; nonprofit, for-profit, and hybrid.

 What do you think sets social entrepreneurship apart from other areas of innovation and entrepreneurship? 

KB: To me, what sets social entrepreneurship apart from something like commercial entrepreneurship is that social entrepreneurship is cause-related interventions.  It doesn’t care solely about the bottom line, but exists for the purpose finding innovative solutions to particular social problems.  

MN:  For a social entrepreneur, the primary intent is to achieve positive social impact through an innovative approach.  A strong financial model, whether achieved through earned income (“social enterprise”), impact investments, and/or philanthropy, is a means to this ultimate end.  Social entrepreneurship is not about companies donating profits to address social and environmental challenges, nor is it about nonprofits behaving more like businesses.  Our colleague Greg Dees explained that social entrepreneurs are the change agents of the social sector in that they “seek to create systemic changes and sustainable improvements.”  In comparison to commercial entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs face unique challenges in navigating complex stakeholder environments, attracting capital, designing robust business models that may combine commercial and philanthropic elements, articulating and testing a “theory of change” and measuring the outcomes and impact of their work. 

Social entrepreneurship is an interdisciplinary field by nature. How does I&E work with other departments and institutions at Duke to promote diverse social entrepreneurship initiatives?

KB: Duke I&E believes that innovation and entrepreneurship are for everyone. Passion, drive, and ability to solve social problems and make the world a better place live and breathe in every department at the university; and it is shortsighted to limit that opportunity for students to the business school (which at many other universities seems to be where entrepreneurship programs are housed.) We cultivate the notion that any student can make the world a better place in whatever area of study they choose. We help to connect students to programs, opportunities, student groups, competitions, events, and workshops, taking place in all departments and institutions at Duke. We challenge faculty members from all departments and schools at Duke to integrate the concept of social innovation in their coursework. Additionally, the interdisciplinary I&E Certificate program has a curricular pathway for those students interested in social innovation. Undergraduate students across all majors and areas of study can be a part of the I&E Certificate program.

MN:  We collaborate with a wide variety of faculty and administrators across Duke to develop and enhance courses and programs and to advance relevant research and action.  For example, through our Weil Fellowship, we work with faculty to integrate concepts of social innovation in their teaching, research, and entrepreneurial pursuits.  Working with DukeEngage, we have launched a summer program in Detroit.  We have also helped the Sanford School launch several new courses and programs for graduate students interested in social innovation, and I&E team members have engaged deeply in the development of the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke, a USAID-funded development lab for scaling innovations in global health.

What makes a university-setting – and specifically Duke – well-suited to promote social innovation?

KB: Duke has some of the top students in the nation. Why would we not want to encourage these students to make the world better in any small way, no matter their career path?  Here at Duke and at I&E, students are challenged to pilot their ideas, to make mistakes, to alter their plans, to change their minds, to work on teams, to grow, and innovate and learn. By giving students the tools and this safe, yet challenging space that we have built here at I&E and throughout the university to bring their ideas into actions that make a difference for individuals, communities, institutions, and societies, we are constantly encouraging and empowering translation of Duke’s strategic commitment to knowledge in the service of society.

MN:  Duke University is globally renowned for its pioneering leadership in social entrepreneurship.  Through the groundbreaking work of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke has established a track record of high-impact thought leadership in social entrepreneurship and has demonstrated an ability to translate between academic research and practice, and between business and the social sector.  In addition, excellence in teaching in social innovation and related areas can be found across the university, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, including within the Enterprising Leadership Initiative at the Sanford School of Public Policy, the Duke Global Health Institute, the Developing World Healthcare Technology Lab and the Global Women’s Health Technology Center at Pratt, and in many other schools, departments, and centers.

Why does Duke champion social entrepreneurship so much? 

KB: It’s no secret that students who come to Duke are often top of their class, and a big fish in a small pond. Once they arrive at Duke they quickly become a small fish in a big pond of people just as bright and just as motivated as them and students often automatically think that in order to be successful at Duke, they must carve a pathway towards a career in investment banking or consulting. We champion entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship because students need to recognize that they can go off the beaten path and still be incredibly successful. Through social innovation courses, clubs, and groups, students are able to explore and discover causes that they feel passionate about, problems the they want to solve, and recognize and learn that they can turn those passions into impactful careers should they choose. Although these careers can often exist within a nonprofit structure, it becomes clear that social innovation can happen anywhere— even within corporate businesses or more traditional career paths. Therefore, students can learn that even if they do choose to go on the more traditional career path, they can still feed their passions that they discover and do a little bit of good wherever they go.

MN:  The magnitude and complexity of today’s global challenges requires a more robust, diverse, and talented cadre of problem solvers who are prepared to tackle them.  Duke I&E is extending and expanding upon the university’s leadership in this field by cultivating transformative learning environments to inspire, prepare, and support entrepreneurial leaders and scholars to turn knowledge into action in addressing critical social and environmental challenges.  Bottom line, we want to make a real difference in the lives of real people!

What kind of social innovation have you seen the most at Duke? What excites you and what would you like to see more of?

KB: What excites me is that I have seen such a variety of innovations that I know the knowledge of social innovation and entrepreneurship is truly spreading across all of the different schools at the university. Students from all areas of study are feeling empowered to step up and seek to make a positive impact in their community and in the world. I have seen innovations related to education, refugee resettlement, water conservation, environmental sustainability, disease control, resource development, women empowerment, anti-bullying, anti-violence, sexual assault, gender inequality, income inequality, urban slum development, healthy eating, athletic development, homelessness, art therapy and empathy. I would love to see more interventions that relate directly to the Durham community.  

What qualities do you think make for a successful social entrepreneur or for an effective social innovation? 

KB: I believe that a successful social innovator must have passion, the ability to empathize, perseverance (many fail the first several times), patience and dedication.

Matt:  I concur, and I’ll add the abilities to think creatively and solve problems, build and lead effective teams and coalitions, communicate clearly and convincingly, understand and leverage systems, and develop a sense of self efficacy as a changemaker.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes you see among social entrepreneurs? 

KB: I think that the biggest problem is when people who are trying to solve problems do not do enough research about already existing interventions similar to theirs. People end up reinventing the wheel instead of taking collaborative measures. I feel as though a true social innovator puts the pride of being the “sole leader” aside and learns to collaborate and make more positive impact with people who may also have the same idea.

MN:  I agree with Katherine, which is why I am a strong proponent of incorporating “human centered design” approaches into developing social innovations.  Through design thinking, social entrepreneurs can better identify and understand needs and wants experienced by stakeholders and co-create appropriate solutions that are desirable, feasible, and viable given the local context.  These interactive methods of needs-finding emphasize contact, observation and empathy with end-users to develop insights that will lead to more effective solutions that fit within the local community.

What kinds of resources are available to social innovators at Duke? 

KB: Social innovators at Duke can take advantage of a wide array of resources including venture support and mentorship, workshops, connections to competitions and conferences, alumni connections, speaker events, summer programs, and courses. There are also a wide variety of groups and clubs that students can get involved with depending on their area of interest. We try to stay involved with all of those clubs and groups doing things related to social innovation and entrepreneurship and are always happy to point students in the right direction.

MN:  Information on these and other resources can be found on the Duke I&E website by clicking on the “Social Entrepreneurship” tab.  We highly encourage students to sign up for our newsletter via a Sympa listserv at .

 What advice would you give to a first-year or sophomore student interested in social entrepreneurship?

KB: Social innovation can be integrated into any area of study. It is not confined solely to business school, and that must be recognized! Whether you are a studying theater, public policy, arts, environmental science, or are on a pre-med track, you can be innovative and entrepreneurial in your field. And that doesn’t mean that you have to start your own venture or business. You can be innovative and make incremental positive changes in whatever career path you choose.

MN:  I would suggest taking an introductory course in social innovation and entrepreneurship, participating in an innovation challenge such as the Hult Prize or Duke ChangeWorks, and considering joining a club such as Net Impact, Design for America, Social Impact 360, or similar.  I would also suggest participating in DukeEngage, a summer internship in the field, or other immersive learning programs that allow students to gain greater depth and understanding by “apprenticing with a problem”—only then can you begin to gain the insights and empathy you will need to engage with others in co-creating effective solutions to important problems.

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