A Subject for Those Who Want to Make a Difference
Susan Notes: Scholarships for people who want to make the world better is a great idea.
By Alan Finder
Rob Lucas wants to help teachers collaborate on lesson plans via the Internet. Jolie Delja wants to advise teenage girls of the risks of drinking and smoking if they become pregnant. And Uri Pomerantz wants to create jobs for Palestinians.
They are among 20 young people who will enroll at Harvard University in September as the first recipients of graduate fellowships that promote the training of social entrepreneurs - people who use the skills of the marketplace to solve social problems innovatively.
Pioneers in the field view the fellowships, financed by a $10 million gift from the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation, as a milestone in their fledgling field's elevation from the level of business schools into the broader reaches of the university. The fellows will be studying in Harvard's School of Public Health, Graduate School of Education or the Kennedy School of Government.
The gift is just one manifestation of the growing interest in enterprising approaches to social problems at many universities. Pace University announced last month it was creating a new center for social entrepreneurship. More than 30 business schools now offer courses in the subject.
The Reynolds Foundation also gave New York University $10 million last spring to endow similar fellowships; these will be for both undergraduate and graduate students and will be awarded for the first time next year.
"I remember a time when a lot of folks who were interested in social issues saw business as part of the problem, not part of the solution, " said J. Gregory Dees, a professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.
Many academics link this change to the spirit of commercial innovation that produced the digital economy. Student interest also fueled the growth.
"This generation of students expects more out of their careers, beyond the initial business success and financial gain that people generally assume business students are interested in," said Jane Wei-Skillern, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. "They envision community engagement as a core part of what they do."
Dr. Dees, who is believed to have taught the first course on social entrepreneurship, said he first suggested the idea when he was teaching at Harvard in 1989. He was told that it was not an appropriate subject for a graduate school of business. Six years later, he inaugurated the first course, at Harvard, and then continued exploring the subject when he moved to Stanford and Duke. He is director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Duke.
Today, versions of his course are found at many business schools. It is still an emerging field, though, and scholars have yet to develop broad theories about social entrepreneurship or a rich body of academic work on the people who succeed in marrying business skills and social initiatives.
There is not even agreement on precisely how to define the field. Does it involve only innovative nonprofit groups? Or does it also include profit-making companies with social goals as part of their mission?
Some professors even challenge the idea that it is a legitimate field of inquiry.
Paul C. Light, a professor at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at N.Y.U., is among those who have begun serious research. He received a grant to study highly successful social entrepreneurs, to determine what they have in common.
"There is very little evidence-based knowledge out there," Dr. Light said. "Right now the field is dominated by a hope and a dream."
Nevertheless, accounts of successful social entrepreneurs - essentially histories of efforts by individuals and organizations that used innovative approaches to attack a social problem - are the foundation of classes.
They include some well-known examples, like the economist Mohammed Yunus, born in Bangladesh and trained at Vanderbilt University, who created an unusual lending institution to grant micro-loans, often for as little as $5 or $10, to enable desperately poor women in rural Bangladesh to expand small businesses in weaving baskets and making pots.
Dr. Dees and other professors use the case to discuss with students why conventional banks would not grant such tiny loans and how Professor Yunus managed to make his lending institution profitable. They ask students why conventional social service agencies did not see the opportunity and whether it could be replicated in other third world countries.
More than 1,000 students applied for the fellowships at Harvard, said David R. Gergen, director of the center for public leadership at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who was a senior aide to four presidents. "I have been stunned by the number and quality of the applications," he said.
Many of those awarded the fellowships have demonstrated an aptitude for innovation. Mr. Lucas, who is 24 and a Harvard graduate, came up with the idea for an interactive Web site for teachers while teaching sixth-grade social studies in Rocky Mount, N.C. He will begin a master's program in technology and education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education in September.
Ms. Delja, 24, worked after college in a research program involving children who were exposed to alcohol prenatally. She will attend Harvard's School of Public Health, concentrating in maternal and child health, and wants to open a center for teenage girls when she completes her graduate degree.
Mr. Pomerantz, a 23-year-old fellow who will attend the Kennedy School of Government, became a social entrepreneur while still in college. Mr. Pomerantz, whose mother is Israeli and father is American, developed a nonprofit group to create jobs on the West Bank and in Gaza by making very small loans to start up Palestinian businesses. He created the group after his great-aunt was killed by a terrorist in Jerusalem.
"Economics is not the full issue or the core issue," Mr. Pomerantz said, "but if you can't solve the economic issues, you are not going to have peace."
The scholarships were intended to create a new generation of leaders, said Catherine B. Reynolds, the chairwoman of the foundation, who built a fortune by creating a company that provides college loans to students ineligible for government loans.
New York Times
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