Feature of the Week

April 23, 2012 12:05 am

Students take on social innovation challenge

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Change agents, social innovators, problem solvers, thought leaders – the jargon is used endlessly in a business school context by teachers, their students and prospective employers. But how many of these business people are making a difference and changing the environment around them?

The financial crisis has prompted considerable reflection, with those in power having to reassess how they run their organisations. This change in mindset has penetrated every level of society, with business schools looking afresh at how they present themselves and the MBA brand. The banking scandals of 2008-09 led to a breakdown of trust in business, and business schools found themselves in the line of fire, criticised for churning out graduates who were arguably initiators and promoters of the “greed is good” culture.

Against a backdrop of an uncertain employment climate and waning appeal for corporate jobs at investment banks, business schools now recognise the importance of investing in entrepreneurship and in particular social entrepreneurship.

In recent years, schools from Fuqua at Duke University in the US to Insead in France and Singapore have expanded their social entrepreneurship programmes, mirroring recent trends in the social sector that have led to a blurring of the distinction between business, non-profit and government organisations.

With this in mind, three years ago Hult International Business School launched its global case challenge in which students compete for a $1m cash grant to implement their idea for solving a real-life development problem faced by non-governmental organisations.

The challenge is run in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative – a foundation established by former US president Bill Clinton that pushes for health security, economic empowerment, leadership development and citizen service.

This year’s challenge has attracted thousands of students from more than 130 countries and 300 institutions, including the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the Indian School of Business, Columbia, Ceibs, London Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Students have been asked to develop ways to tackle global poverty, focusing on education, energy and housing. Only 18 of the applicants will go through to the global final in New York this month (after regional finals in cities from London to Dubai and San Francisco). The grant, provided by the Hult family, will be split between three winning teams – one winner from each stream – and in conjunction with One Laptop per Child, SolarAid and Habitat for Humanity they will move on to map out an implementation plan.

Last year’s winning team from the Judge Business School at Cambridge university worked with Water.org to address the clean water crisis.

“I was attracted to this competition as it was not just about good intentions, it was about execution,” says Akanksha Hazari, founder of m.Paani, the winner. “It was not just about having an idea or about navigating artificial scenarios.”

“There has been a shift in thinking about what an MBA student is over the last 10 years,” says Ahmed Ashkar, the founder of the Hult Global Case Challenge and former MBA student at the school.

“It’s not just about becoming a banker or a hedge fund manager or an executive; it is about social innovation, through which you can make money too.”

Increasingly, business schools are incorporating social entrepreneurship into their missions and curriculums. They hope that by taking alternative approaches to business and creating and developing sustainable business ideas they can change society for the better and bridge the gap between business, government and charity.

Mr Ashkar says that of the 5,000 people who put forward applications for their teams, 4,000 are MBAs. “If we had launched this competition before the financial crisis, I don’t know if our turnout would have been so successful. In 2009 we were able to catch students who had left finance, an industry that had left a bitter taste in people’s mouths.”

He continues: “Business schools too had taken a lot of criticism, for putting out these students without a social conscience. When HGCC went to schools from Harvard to Imperial to generate support it was like a breath of fresh air. These schools realised that now it was more important than ever.”

Michael Zakaras, senior strategist at Ashoka, an association of global social entrepreneurs, agrees and emphasises the importance of empathy in business.

“There is no reason why top schools should be grooming the brightest minds just for jobs on Wall Street,” he says. “MBA schools have realised this in recent years ... people need to be seriously engaged and it is not just about feeling good. Empathy is not just a moral compass but is a central part of strategy for business success.”

According to Ashoka, business schools are responding to increasing demand for social entrepreneurship studies since the financial downturn. In 2008 there were 350 faculty staff worldwide catering to the field, compared with more than 500 at the start of 2011. And the number of social entrepreneurship programmes has nearly doubled over the same period. Jobs in the “citizen sector” are also growing at about two and a half times the rate of those in the rest of the economy, according to the OECD, the Paris-based organisation of developed countries.

. . .

But for business schools, social entrepreneurship and competitions are also an opportunity to increase brand value.

“We have gained a lot of traction among the student population over the last three years,” says Stephen Hodges, president of Hult International Business School.

“The Hult brand is only eight years old and we are competing with those that are over 100 years old. The competition allows us to build global brand awareness and build connections with large corporations.

“But the world doesn’t need another business school competition ... The fact that thousands of people have tried to enter shows the strength of feeling of giving back.

“Students are far more aware of social entrepreneurship and trying to do good than we realise, particularly since the financial crisis.”

Search for best ideas

Social entrepreneurship is increasingly a priority for MBA students, prompting competitions and challenges run by business schools and other organisations, writes Charlotte Clarke.

In January 2012 The Financial Times MBA challenge launched in partnership with Sightsavers. To tackle the stigma attached to wearing glasses in developing countries, students have been asked to develop a business plan to market glasses to children or young people.

Registered teams are made up of students from more than 30 schools including the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta, Warwick Business School in the UK, Stanford Graduate School of Business in the US and the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Elsewhere, the Global Business School Network, an international non-profit organisation for management education in emerging markets, has invited students to submit videos showing how they are using their MBA skills to make an impact in the developing world. Videos subjected to online voting include Changing Education in Mexico by Ipade Business School, An Afghan in Africa by Thunderbird School of Global Management in the US and The $300 House Project by Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Combating hunger, environmental degradation and disease is the aim of the Haas School of Business’s Global Social Venture competition. Ideas include building sustainable houses in Bangladesh and lowering diabetes among pregnant women in Mexico.

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