The Business of Changing the World

By Katie Koch, Harvard Gazette

Jobs for homeless veterans in Boston, access to electricity in Pakistan, food storage for small farmers in Sri Lanka, water purification in Bolivian villages: They’re pressing issues that span the globe, with one thing in common. Harvard students are trying to solve them.

As seven groups of undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in Sociology 159 — commonly known as the SE Lab, for Social Entrepreneurship Collaboratory — gave one-minute pitches for their socially conscious startups, it was clear that Harvard houses the energy and creativity to tackle complex, public problems.

To succeed, however, would-be social entrepreneurs need practical skills to attract investors, carry out projects, and collaborate across the boundaries between public and private institutions. With that in mind, analysts and investors gathered at Harvard Kennedy School’s (HKS) John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Friday to sketch a roadmap to the future of socially responsible business.

“The Next Generation of Social Entrepreneurship” was an unofficial kickoff to the annual Social Enterprise Conference, a two-day affair sponsored by HKS and Harvard Business School (HBS) that drew 1,500 attendees for panels, workshops, and a career fair.

“I’ve found enormous resistance in universities to doing what we’re doing,” said Gordon Bloom, director of the SE Lab (which also operates out of Stanford and Princeton universities) and a lecturer on sociology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. But around Harvard, he said, he has noticed a recent shift in attitude.

“Different pockets of Harvard are struggling to understand how to create social entrepreneurship,” Bloom said, citing the new Harvard Innovation Lab and the recently announced President’s Challenge, a University initiative that will distribute a total of $150,000 to student teams pursuing solutions to global problems, from education to health to clean water and air.

Such entrepreneurs — and a culture that supports them — are increasingly critical, said Bill Drayton ’65, coiner of the term “social entrepreneurship” and CEO of Ashoka, a firm he founded in 1980 that provides financial and professional support to budding social entrepreneurs. As the world becomes accustomed to constant change, the old method of assigning problems to private business, government, or the nonprofit sector no longer makes sense. read more

image of panelists

Panelists (L to R): Gordon Bloom, Lecturer on Sociology; Bill Drayton, CEO of Ashoka; and Christa Velasquez, senior fellow at Initiative for Responsible Investment, Harvard University.

Photo Credit: Kris Snibbe

“Different pockets of Harvard are struggling to understand how to create social entrepreneurship,” said Bloom.

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