Social Entrepreneurship 101: Higher Education Drives Socially Conscious Startups—Interested in becoming a social entrepreneur? You’re in luck. More and more universities are offering courses, programs, and clubs devoted to encouraging social innovation as both a profitable and impactful career choice.

Social Entrepreneurship 101

Image credit: Madison Andrews

In popular usage, social entrepreneurship refers to individuals and entities that use entrepreneurial principles to promote social good. Successful visionaries have certainly emerged from non-academic backgrounds, but organizations like Net Impact and AshokaU believe that higher education provides an environment uniquely suited to cultivating business-savvy individuals with a conscience.

“The environment at universities gives space for learning and risk-taking,” said Marina Kim, Executive Director and Co-founder of AshokaU. “Students are forming their identities in college, and the entrepreneurial identity is one that they can try on and grow into during their exploration.”

AshokaU was founded in 2008 with the goal of catalyzing social innovation in higher education. The organization has designated 22 institutions as “Changemaker Campuses,” based on their campus-wide commitment to promoting social innovation and environmental responsibility through programs, courses, and clubs. By 2015, AshokaU hopes to grow its consortium to include 30 diverse institutions.

Here’s a video explaining the AshokaU vision:

Highly respected MBA programs are getting on board with the social entrepreneurship trend, as well. In 2003, the Skoll Foundation partnered with Said Business School at the University of Oxford to launch the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, the first academic center of its kind. Other university-based research organizations include the Social Enterprise Initiative at Harvard Business School, the Center for Social Innovation at Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School’s Social Enterprise Program.

But how many graduates involved in these programs go on to launch successful start-ups that care about more than just the bottom line? Surprisingly, the success stories are hard to find, but there are some. Danny Castonguay, a 2013 MBA candidate at MIT’s Sloan School of Business and former Legatum fellow, is one student who has already launched a successful software company called AntPortal. The Legatum Fellowship helped him to finance his education at MIT, and provided the resources and network required to pursue “Sustainable Management of Agricultural Resources and Trade for Cooperatives,” or SMART Coops, a for-profit business devoted to helping farmers and fisheries manage their resources more effectively.

Ultimately, SMART Coops “didn’t get off the ground,” said Castonguay. But the entrepreneurship-focused environment at MIT allowed him to meet Paul Rivera—another entrepreneur with big ideas and a need for talented programmers. After joining a prestigious incubator program in Silicon Valley, the two managed to raise enough funds to launch their online learning platform — SkillNova, or Kalibrr as it is known in the Philippines—which provides free training for individuals seeking a career as a call center representative. To date, Skillnova has opened five training centers in the Philippines. According to Castonguay, higher education provided the training, network, and competitive environment he needed to become a successful entrepreneur.

“Higher education got me addicted to challenges,” he said. “I am very competitive, but when left to my own devices at home, this can only be expressed in so many ways: playing soccer, video games, and arguing about politics and the economy with friends. As great as those challenges are, none of them are as meaningful to me as the ones I faced in higher education. There are intellectual challenges, such as learning to do a problem set on Maxwell’s equations, but there are also school competitions such as the MIT 100K.”

Social entrepreneurship is still a relatively new concept, but one that is attracting the attention of talented and energetic young people who will soon enter the work force. Time will tell if higher education can empower those students to go forth and create successful, socially conscious startups.

Madison Andrews is a writer, editor, and designer living in Austin, Texas. She is founder and editor of Email her at [email protected], find her on tumblr, or follow her @madskillsvocab.

Jeremy Lesniak
Based in Vermont, Jeremy Lesniak is managing editor at and founder of Vermont Computing, Inc. and Email him [email protected]
Jeremy Lesniak
Jeremy Lesniak
Tags: Business,Education,Entrepreneurship