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How to Change the World

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What do you get when you mix students from civil engineering, international development, landscape architecture, agronomy, business, and several other disciplines together? What if you add a veteran engineer as the instructor, throw in a teaching assistant with an MBA and a BA in anthropology, and season with a couple of designers, business people, and non profit founders as guest speakers?

You get a lot of plans for how to change the world for the better through social ventures.

The scenario I'm talking about took place last week at the Institute on the Environment in a course called Social Entrepreneurship: Environment and Health. Offered through the University of Minnesota's Department of Civil Engineering, the one-week course was developed and taught by Fred Rose, co-founder of Acara, an IonE program whose mission is to develop sustainable business solutions to global societal and environmental problems. I had the pleasure of serving as TA.

DSCN3055.jpgThe only prerequisite for the class was that students have a social problem in mind, and an idea for how to solve it.

Unlike many courses, which focus on theory, we wanted students to walk out of the class with a concrete plan for how to proceed with their social venture, whether it be a Minneapolis after-school racquetball program or a produce-delivery service in New Delhi. This posed a bit of a challenge because every team was in a different stage, from early idea to up-and-running. However, with a lot of individual working time, and a flexible schedule, we tailored the class to accommodate varying needs.

The framework we used was the Business Model Canvas from Business Model Generation by Alexander Osterwalder et al. This canvas uses nine "building blocks" essential to running an organization and allows entrepreneurs to start from high-level concept and get increasingly more detailed. The most important - and most difficult to understand from a seat in the classroom - is the customer. We drew on ethnographic and design-thinking principles to teach students to identify potential customer wants and needs through observation and interaction. Only after a compelling customer need is identified can financially sustainable solutions be developed.

What makes social ventures different from average for-profit business and many nonprofit organizations is that they seek to fulfill a social need through earned revenue. They are hybrids; social entrepreneurs consider both the financial feasibility and the impact their venture will have on a problem such as contaminated drinking water or poor sanitation. Some social ventures will choose to become for-profit enterprises, while others will become nonprofits or some hybrid of the two; we recommend only that the form it takes fits what the organization does.

Even within our group of 20 students, there was potential for a variety of different forms. Emily Torgrimson's Eat for Equity is a 501(c)3 and has been raising money for various other charities through large pay-what-you-wish group dinners (and recently appeared on the NBC Today show!). Alex Strachota plans to form the Chequamegon Wood-Heat Cooperative, avertical.jpg worker-owned business that will produce wood pellets and firewood for home heating in northern Wisconsin, plus provide local, land-based employment. Nick Ollrich wants to start an interdisciplinary design firm that has developed a cost-effective approach to designing and retrofitting homes with integrated passive solar design principles to significantly reduce residential energy use.

Entrepreneurs have to be salespeople, whether they are pitching their ideas to would-be funders or their products to potential customers, so we spent a quite a bit of time building communication skills. We wanted to be sure the students could effectively explain the problem they were trying to solve and how they would do it. In this respect, having such varied backgrounds was helpful, because specialized jargon was quickly spotted and changed to plain language for a general audience. Each team developed a short elevator pitch and a longer presentation, along with accompanying slides, and delivered it in front of the entire group for feedback several times. It was amazing to watch the transformations from shy and stumbling to poised and polished as they incorporated their peers' comments into their talks.

We also know the importance of having a community with which to share ideas, so we tried to foster that as well. We started with ice-breakers so that students would get to know each other. Those students working without other teammates paired up with other solo entrepreneurs to go through exercises together. We spent a lot of time in small working groups and then coming back together as a class to discuss and share feedback.

We hope that the students continue to call on one another and on the other entrepreneurs they met in the class as they bring their plans forward. We have a follow-on one-credit class this spring, to provide a structure for these budding social entrepreneurs to continue to meet and refine their venture idea.

Abigail Sugahara served as teaching assistant for Social Entrepreneurship: Environment and Health.

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  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and not necessarily
  of the Institute on the Environment/University of Minnesota.