Beyond Business—Social Entrepreneurship

Michigan News

Ask Michael Gordon what he’s trying to accomplish by exposing undergraduates to an up-and-coming focus in business curriculum called social entrepreneurship and the answer probably will go something like this:

“Each of us has the opportunity and potential to nudge the planet in the direction we want to see it move,” Gordon writes in his blog,

“The impact I’m trying to create is centered on individuals— students and others I have the privilege to reach. Others may work to change organizations or even larger systems, but my perch as a professor makes a focus on individual change a natural fit.”

Gordon, Arthur F. Thurnau professor and professor of business administration in the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, said he attempts to encourage societal change one student at a time.

“This is business school and you walk in the door Day 1 and one of the fundamental messages is that you’re in business to make money for stockholders. There are a bunch of reasons to create a business, and one of the very legit reasons is to produce societal good,” he said.

“There are real problems of hunger, poverty, lack of education and deteriorating environments, and we actually can create businesses that are aimed at those problems,” he said, adding that such organizations still can make a profit.

Social entrepreneurship, also called social enterprise, refers to the concept of bringing innovative ideas to bear on the most pressing societal problems. Interest in this area has grown in recent years, and some business schools have responded by developing programs and courses, mostly for MBA students. Gordon believes exposure for undergraduates is just as important.

“How do I choose to spread the ideas I want others to know about?  I bring a creative aptitude to my work. I’ve devised plays … and multimedia-based simulations to instruct.  I’ve had my students collaboratively author a book (minor fail) and create videos with impact (major win),” Gordon wrote in the blog.

It’s the latter concept of creating a video that has resonated most with his students and the organizations in communities far and wide that they reach out to help.

“This class is just so different from when people think of school and typical college courses. And I think this is what makes Ross — what makes Michigan — so different,” said David Kolodny, a student from Los Angeles. “He (Gordon) gives us the practical tools and then we go out and make a practical difference.”

For their final project, Gordon has challenged the students in the course Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid to advance the work of a non-profit or for-profit business that seeks to address a societal problem.

“They supported real organizations and their needs: fundraising, recruiting volunteers, raising awareness, etc. Several videos have been seen more than a thousand times. Others helped raise several hundred thousand dollars,” Gordon wrote in the blog.

And that’s just this year’s class of students who served Detroit organizations that promote healthy food choices, work to tear down blighted homes, turn abandoned houses into works of art, provide academic help to struggling students, and encourage girls to get out and exercise.

Others assisted closer to Ann Arbor, creating a mobile app for a campus organization that annually raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, and assisting a group trying to organize a one-stop resource for student entrepreneurship organizations that work locally and globally.

Included in some of the videos are stories about other young social entrepreneurs, people who have chosen to do business in ways that change the world, or at least a small part of it.

Among them, the story of Eco-fuel Africa and a young entrepreneur who sought to bring a solution to two vexing problems in Uganda: the growing decimation of natural forests and a population group that was losing out on getting an education.

The country’s residents use wood to fuel their homes and cook, and 70 percent of Uganda’s forests already are gone, due to the constant harvesting of trees with no replacement planting. Estimates are that at the current rate forests will disappear entirely by 2050.

And who gathers this wood? Young girls who miss school because of the time needed to scour for fuel. The culture has determined that boys must be educated but girls do not have to finish school if someone is needed to do the work.

Students in the business course met with Sanga Moses who has developed a solution to both concerns. He converts locally sourced farm and municipal waste into clean cooking fuel and organic fertilizer. His organization trains women to sell the fuel, boosting the local economy, slowing deforestation, providing better crop yields and allowing girls to stay in school.

Moses wanted the class’ help with a video that he could take on the road to attract investors and donors.

“It was really cool to see Sanga’s organization actually impacting these people and giving them a fighting chance to be able to live sustainable and healthier lives; to be able to make some money and empower women through education. It’s all these causes rolled into one,” said Amy Kaminski of Riverview. “Business is my major but my passion is more helping people and seeing how these organizations work.”

Another group worked with 313 Energy, created by two young high school students who gave 11 cents of each energy drink sold back to the city of Detroit. The drink became popular and the business model even attracted the attention of Mayor Dave Bing. Much like the stories seen on the popular TV program Shark Tank, it became time for the business to seek investors and move toward mass production and increased sales.  The Ross School group helped with some marketing concepts, including a video.

“What impressed me most is there’s a story behind each of these videos,” Gordon said.

Jennifer Liang of Troy was in a group that worked with Inspiring our Sons, a program to help young men in Detroit see college as an option.

“I don’t know how likely it would have been for me to find out about this organization or to reach out to a group in Detroit and initiate that on my own, if I hadn’t had this impetus,” Liang said. “We thought there’s a lot of potential for us to do something here.”

“I think businesses really can be agents for good in the world, so I love the idea that we have this class here at Michigan, and they offer the resources,” said Vince Moceri of West Bloomfield, who also worked with the Sons group. “And it’s cool to see that other students are passionate about it as well.”


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