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Social Entrepreneurship Subject of New Startup.Org Course at W&L

When David Touve, a Washington and Lee University professor of business administration, introduced students to social entrepreneurship with a class called “Wicked Problems,” he offered a simple purpose: “To find a few ways and a few people willing to change the world.”

In the four-week spring term course, the students examined such problems as hunger, disease, poverty and energy shortages, and considered solutions that required methods beyond those of traditional problem solving.

This fall Touve has retooled the course, now called “Startup.org: Social Entrepreneurship,” for the traditional 12-week semester. The problems are still wicked and the goal is the same.

Social entrepreneurship is not a new concept but, said Touve, there are still grand debates over exactly what it is.  Some business schools still struggle to fit this concept into the curriculum, even as the subject of social entrepreneurship has gained greater legitimacy over the last decade.

At Washington and Lee, the social entrepreneurship class is the latest addition to a set of courses developed over the past four years, as the University has begun a program in entrepreneurship under the direction of Jeffrey Shay, the Johnson Professor of Entrepreneurship and Leadership.

“At its core, entrepreneurship is about starting something — something imagined and, hopefully, well-designed — to have impact,” said Touve. “That impact has value, whether or not we can directly charge someone for it.”

These start-ups could be for-profit or non-profit. They could be new projects within a corporation or a wholly new organization altogether.

“Most importantly, neither non- nor for-profit are business models,” Touve said. “They are simply corporate forms. There are non-profits that sell things and for-profits that give things away.”

Touve is introducing the 16 students in his class this semester to case studies of foundations, social ventures and venture philanthropists. These cases range from Arcadia Biosciences to Ashoka to Samasource. The course, he said, can operate backward: students are first presented with a challenge and then try to develop a solution, rather then being presented with a solution that is then applied to every challenge.

“I don’t hand them a cookie-cutter solution. We work together to try to figure one out,” Touve said. “In social entrepreneurship, the key is impact or, in particular, social impact. We want to understand what impact is, and yet it’s not a concrete thing that is valued in a standardized way.

“Among the questions the students have to ask about these ventures are: How does impact happen? What will be the measures of that impact? What are the costs of starting one of these ventures? How might we have the greatest impact? How might we find the value of that impact—can we charge for it, or will we need to find support?”

The social venture world is broader than what Touve calls “classic” entrepreneurship. “It has grant-making, plus venture capital, plus venture philanthropy, plus individual donors,” he said. “That little system is more broad, and I think it’s more difficult to navigate. The protocol for launching these ventures is clearly not established, the market for funding is not formalized, so both young founders and established founders end up swimming more, trying to figure out how to operate in this system.”

One thing that Touve wants to get across to his students is his view that entrepreneurs are not special people, but normal people who start something in an effort to impact the world around them. Their decisions, he added, can be well-reasoned or wholly irrational. The challenge for a course like this one is to provide some way of distinguishing the unreasonable from the reasonable, or at least respecting the risk inherent to that difference.

When he talks about starting a company, Touve speaks from experience. Prior to his PhD and faculty position, David founded his first venture by 25, and later worked with a number of startups—some failed, some still operating, some acquired by firms like Sony and AOL.

Less than half of the 16 students in his class are business administration majors, while the others are majoring in everything from politics to journalism to East Asian Languages and Literatures. Furthermore, students arrive in the course as sophomores, juniors, and seniors

“From this broad perspective, a liberal arts campus is an ideal setting for entrepreneurship,” Touve said. “The result of the combination is an explicit expression for the sort of mission a school like W&L would already express: knowledge for the sake of understanding combined with understanding for the sake of impact.

“Furthermore, since the answers to the most significant issues facing society cannot really be understood through a talking-head lecture followed by a standardized test with 100 multiple-choice questions, we can — in a setting like that of W&L — dig into these truly complex subjects in small-group, highly interactive discussions. Stated another way, if the issues facing society could be understood through talking heads and bubble tests, we would have solved these issues already and moved on.”

By the end of the semester, he will ask the students to not only take the role of founders presenting their own pitch for new social ventures that can change the world, but also as funders providing their own reasoning for investing in or granting to those student ventures they feel might have the greatest impact.

“The students should be able to provide persuasive and well-reasoned answers, supported by a great deal of research that they will have done around the opportunity and the impact, to a set of key questions” Touve said. “Why should their venture exist? Why might it survive? Why could it have real impact? What will take to have that impact?”

Changing the world can be serious business.

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8459

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