Campus & Community

Community Leaders Trumpet the Rise of Social Enterprises

4 min read

Approximately 100 student leaders in public service from Harvard, Wellesley, Columbia, the University of North Carolina, and several other universities gathered at the Kennedy School of Government last Saturday for the first-ever New England Social Enterprise Conference.

The daylong event was sponsored by the Harvard Public Service Network at Phillips Brooks House, the Harvard College Social Enterprise Club, and the Institute of Politics, along with Harvard’s Boston-based Project Health. Through lectures and workshops, several innovative community leaders shared with the students their wisdom about the burgeoning field of social enterprise, in which private businesses team up with nonprofit organizations to effect social change.

Harvard Business School Senior Lecturer Diana Barrett set the stage for the day, describing how pharmaceutical companies teamed with local health organizations to combat eye diseases in African nations.

Michael Brown, co-founder of the Boston-based City Year, then described how his young nonprofit organization partnered with Timberland Co. to outfit a corps of urban service workers. Today, City Year members wear bright red Timberland jackets that testify to both organizations’ goal of educating and guiding urban youth.

In the conference workshops, speakers described how they lobbied government agencies to support a health care center in Boston’s once-destitute Codman Square, created bank loan programs to stimulate local business ventures in Roxbury, and organized government/business partnerships to reinvigorate ailing neighborhoods in Cincinnati.

Conference director Rebecca Onie, founder and coordinator of Project Health, noted that “we are moving from the idealism of the ’60s to a more practical approach to solving social problems.” Nonprofit organizations, she continued, often lack the capital to provide adequate health, business development, or mentor programs for communities.

Businesses are sometimes unfamiliar with a community’s needs, but offer management advice or financial support to local social service organizations, and gain access to new markets at the same time. Conference speakers spoke of the need to involve local residents in the creation of these partnerships and emphasized cross-industry synergy.

“Businesses and communities have worked together for years, but today’s social enterprises are distinct in their emphasis on shared knowledge, expertise, and capital. They also strive to sustain themselves through revenue generation as much as through support from grants,” explains Bryan Richards, who manages the Harvard Public Service Network at Phillips Brooks House. Social enterprises also reflect a change in the way businesses approach public service. “Many businesses used to simply offer charity. They now believe they can deliver a profound social impact through symbiotic relationships with community groups,” Richards adds.

Mekhala Krishamurthy ’02 found the event “inspiring” because it brought students into contact with leaders who had transformed social ideals into multimillion-dollar urban renewal programs. She said she learned the importance of financial planning for these enterprises.

One speaker, Steve Mariotti, established the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship in 1987 by teaching urban youth to start businesses. His organization has since gone international.

“I love teaching [but] if I had only one hour, I could make more of an impact by obtaining funds from a single venture capitalist than one hundred teachers could make in a classroom,” said Mariotti, himself a former teacher.

Questions of personal or organizational impact, and of current versus future action weighed on the minds of some students.

“Is it better to join a social enterprise now to help a community, or is it better to earn money in the New Economy, then take that money back to the social sector five years from now?” asked Eugenie Lang ’00.

Keynote speaker Andrea Silbert, founder of the Center for Women and Enterprise and a former Wall Street analyst, advised the student leaders in attendance to first gain skills in various industries, then apply those skills to social causes that address their passion.