If diplomats and politicians cannot resolve the historical conflict between Muslim and Jewish communities, it might be time to call on social entrepreneurs.

That is the idea behind a novel executive education programme co-sponsored by Columbia Business School and Cambridge university. The programme, designed and funded by the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation, is in its second year and brings together a group of 24 Jewish and Muslim social entrepreneurs from France, the UK and the US.

The fellows spend two weeks at Columbia’s New York City campus attending workshops taught by Columbia business professors about the nitty-gritty of social businesses – how to raise venture capital, how to scale up and how to devise a marketing plan. Interspersed with these lessons are lectures and tutorials, offered by Cambridge faculty, on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and modern Muslim-Jewish relations.

The participants represent a range of educational backgrounds and are selected on the merits of their previously launched businesses, which range from a centre that counsels British women who live in fear of honour killings, to an organisation that works to improve cancer care for adolescent and young adult patients. Competition to win a spot is stiff: this year, the foundation received nearly 500 applications for 24 available slots.

The programme aims to give participants a foundation in functional business skills, and provide them with an understanding of their heritage and give them an “enlightened network of people like them all over the world to help them grow their businesses”, says Firoz Ladak, executive director of the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation.

Mr Ladak, whose group has spent a little over $1m underwriting the programme, says the course came out of research by the foundation that found an increasing gap between Jews and Muslims, particularly in France.

“Education is the tool that builds bridges, so we decided to build a practical programme that combines business and the humanities,” he says. “In the morning, you learn how to write a business plan and in the afternoon you learn about the roots of Zionism.”

Including humanities in management programmes is an educational experiment that is gaining ground in business schools throughout the US. Harvard, Stanford, Wharton and Yale for example, are revamping their curricula to embrace multidisciplinary approaches. The goal is to teach students how to approach problems from many perspectives to find solutions.

“The hope is that these people with different backgrounds will form a community after the programme. But to do that, they need to have an understanding of historical moments when things worked well and to know what’s happening now,” says Bruce Kogut, professor of ethics and leadership at Columbia Business School, who directs the programme.

The programme focuses on social entrepreneurs, he says, because of their intrinsic desire to use business to do good works. “Entrepreneurs – particularly social entrepreneurs – are motivated by more than just material objectives,” says Prof Kogut. “They have aspirations to make things better: to bring a new product, or a new service to the world that corresponds to a social need.”

Columbia adapted a model it uses for its other executive education programmes, which requires participants to identify and create a personal project before arriving. In this case, participants developed projects that would provide their organisation with a source of revenue.

Following business modules on topics such as strategy and finance, the plans are discussed in small groups. Finally, participants present their idea to a board of executives in a friendly environment as a way of practising their pitch before their return.

The ultimate success of the programme remains to be seen. The foundation and the schools will track the community of social entrepreneurs to see if it continues to exist and if its members are communicating with and helping each other. The fellows’ business success will also be tracked to determine whether they have moved towards a sustainable model. “We would like to see that our efforts have had a social impact, that what they were taught in class affected them,” says Prof Kogut.

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