Michael Thornton at the London Google Campus centre for start-ups
Michael Thornton at the London Google Campus centre for start-ups © Rosie Hallam

Barely a decade ago, if prospective MBA students had typed “social entrepreneurship” into a search engine, it would have generated a few thousand results. Today, that figure is nearer 100m.

The reason for this, says Sándor Nagy, associate director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, based in Switzerland, is that more people are “seeking meaning in what they do”, exploring how their business ideas can benefit the environment or deprived communities.

One catalyst for this shift in attitudes was the recent financial crisis. “People were looking for a ‘new capitalism’ and found that social enterprise can provide a philanthropic and profitable model,” says Nick Badman, chairman of the Peter Cullum Centre for Entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London.

Hard evidence has also helped the cause. Academics, executives and students alike no longer consider social entrepreneurship as “soft and cuddly” with no tangible benefit. Time has enabled the collation of measurable results that prove social enterprises can be both profitable and socially effective.

For example, in 2011, Cass developed the new venture creation programme for socially-minded students. One graduate, Joshua Bicknell, launched Balloon Kenya last year. The company turns a profit by charging young people to travel to Kenya, where Bicknell teaches them entrepreneurial skills. These trainees are then sent out to help Kenyan entrepreneurs with their projects and half the Balloon Kenya profits go to locals to provide start-up funding.

Academics at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School aim to help student entrepreneurs provide this sort of quantifiable benefit, domestically and abroad, through their business ideas. In 2003, Saïd launched the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship with, as its website states, a mandate to change the world by investing in the next generation of social entrepreneurs.

Xavier Helgesen, founder of renewable energy start-up Off.Grid:Electric and chairman of Better World Books, the online bookseller, is a former Skoll student. “An MBA can’t make you creative, but it can help you understand how businesses work, such as why audits matter or how bankers see the world,” he says. A side-benefit for him was that he was “surrounded by like-minded people”, so it is little surprise that he met his business partner on the course at Oxford.

Pamela Hartigan
Pamela Hartigan says social responsibility and entrepreneurship should not be separated

Pamela Hartigan, director of the Skoll Centre and founding managing director of the Schwab Foundation, believes the subject has been moving from the periphery of various MBA curriculums to be an integral part.

“Most MBAs no longer foster a distinction between social responsibility and entrepreneurship,” she says. Rather than separating the two, Hartigan believes it is important for business schools to give people with world-changing ideas the skills to be successful business leaders.

Some schools send participants abroad. Since 2010, the social entrepreneurship module of the MBA at Westminster Business School in London has given students experience in Uganda and India through partnerships with enterprises such as Arpan, an Indian charity fighting child sexual abuse.

“This challenges the way students think about what a profitable business strategy should be and shows them how to create even partial solutions to the world’s issues,” says Simon Healeas, deputy director of MBA programmes at Westminster.

Whether students’ career trajectories lead them to work for a corporation or become entrepreneurs, Healeas says they will carry this “lasting, social consciousness” with them.

Hartigan agrees. “We have romanticised the concept of entrepreneurs and made them ‘heropreneurs’,” she says. “But you can be an innovative, resourceful, change-maker wherever you work.”

At IE Business School in Madrid, all international MBA students take part in the Change in Action week project, “exploring profitable solutions to global problems”. There are different requirements for starting up a regular enterprise and starting up a social one, such as governance structures, so IE wants students to get exposure to both aspects.

Incorporating social entrepreneurship into MBAs has given many students the skills they need to put their ideas into action. However, the idea, the desire and the skills to do good are not enough. An MBA is not a pass to immediate success. Graduates will still face issues such as debt and some will fail.

This can be a risk, says Rachida Justo, professor of entrepreneurship at IE Business School. “The idiosyncrasies of social enterprise cannot be learned in a week or so,” she says. “Students should not be pushed to launch without being aware of the challenges.

“The media feed us dreams of the social entrepreneur millionaire, but this is rarely the reality. We must give students the elements they need to persist. The journey is the reward.”


Green shoots: how an MBA fostered ideas

Michael Thornton was born into a family of engineers, so it was no surprise when he enrolled at Duke University, North Carolina, as an engineering undergraduate.

However, he found his ideology at odds with other students aiming to work at hedge funds or consultancies. “Few people get to grow up without facing hunger or war or crime. Those who do should use their skills to the maximum good. It is a privilege and a responsibility,” he says.

While working at New York-based Sherwood Design Engineers, he considered launching his own start-up, that would “use the intersection of environment and engineering to do good”. But he didn’t know enough about business management.

Thornton then read the prospectus for Oxford Saïd Business School, which incorporates the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship. “I knew I had found the right MBA course for me,” he says.

Since graduating from Saïd in 2012, Thornton has founded three enterprises. Terra Recovery, a landfill recycling company, is in its infancy, while Odyssey Sensors is working on low-cost environmental sensors to help farmers in the developing world.

The main focus is on Carbon Analytics, however, which is building systems to provide real-time data about companies’ carbon footprint. He says these “meaningful, measurable” reports will not only “celebrate companies that reduce their emissions along the chain but also help catalyse change in others”.

The idea for Carbon Analytics germinated during a Future of Business weekend discussion at Skoll. “The MBA brought together creative people from different disciplines and backgrounds,” he says. “I am working with some of them and that has been one of the biggest blessings.”

This article has been amended to reflect that Odyssey Sensors is working on low-cost environmental sensors.

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