27 April 2011

Lessons from pioneering social enterprises

By Amer Saleem Khan

In 1976, a Bangladesh university professor started a small experiment in a village near the campus. With the help of some students, he created a system for providing small loans without collateral to a group of women in the village. This experiment, which was transformed into the now legendary Grameen Bank, launched the global movement of microfinance as a potent poverty alleviation tool. The university professor was Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus.

Grameen Bank continued to operate for many years as an experimental research project at Chittagong University in Bangladesh. The project was managed by a group of dedicated students under the guidance of Professor Yunus. The Grameen experience is an exemplar of action learning activities within the confines of an institution of higher learning. In recent years, another pioneering organisation in the area of microfinance called kiva.org successfully launched a “peer to peer” lending platform on the internet. It links poor entrepreneurs in developing countries who need small loans directly with individuals in developed nations who want to help such individuals. A co-founder of kiva.org was associated with Stanford Business School, and reportedly conceived the ideas and inspiration for kiva.org while working at the business school.

Grameen Bank and kiva.org show that universities have the potential to be the seedbeds for social entrepreneurial ventures, and important lessons for the teaching of social entrepreneurship to university students. What are those lessons? First, social entrepreneurship is about creatively solving social problems. Hence there is a need to go beyond the world of textbooks, and into the rough and tumble of experiential learning through “live” projects so as to understand and experience, first hand, the social problem which is being solved. Yunus states: “I lost faith in textbooks and the world of abstraction … I wanted to avoid the tendency of viewing complex problems through a lens of overarching theoretical frameworks …”.  Students need to develop a questioning attitude towards established ideas and practices; social entrepreneurs engage in “creative destruction” – they try to grapple with social problems through new ways of thinking and organising. Creating experiential learning opportunities which recreate the dynamics of real life, social enterprises is admittedly a difficult task for university teachers but that is the only way to teach highly complex, context dependent and multidisciplinary phenomena such as social entrepreneurship.

Second, in order to teach social entrepreneurship university teachers need to assume the role of a social entrepreneur. Without an entrepreneurial mindset, they will most likely not be able to inject that essential “creative tension” in the learning experiences that they provide to students. Consequently, students will not feel challenged and motivated to engage in those learning experiences. University teachers can assume an entrepreneurial identity by taking calculated risks with their course contents and delivery methods. They need to incessantly seek feedback from peers and students on the learning experiences that they design. They need to make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. Emotional resilience and perseverance are some of the most important traits that need to be transferred to students as part of social entrepreneurial learning experiences. 

Finally, social entrepreneurial ventures are increasingly leveraging technology, particularly information and communication technology, to create new business models to solve social problems. The kiva.org initiative has successfully demonstrated this point. The current crop of university students are tech savvy individuals with access to an ever increasing array of gadgets and software. Social entrepreneurship curricula needs to leverage technology to create rich learning experiences with the potential to engage students in more effective ways and to create cost effective and agile learning platforms.    

Universities, due to their potential for free exchange of ideas and experimentation, can be excellent incubators of social enterprises through their social entrepreneurship curricula. It is only a matter of persistent experimentation with learning experiences for the students. We never know, there might be a Professor Yunus in our midst.

Amer S. Khan is a lecturer with the School of Business and Design at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at akhan@swinburne.edu.my