Social Entrepreneurship Enters the Mainstream

By Elizabeth Boggs Davidsen

Elizabeth Boggs Davidsen is acting chief of the Multilateral Investment Fund's Access to Markets and Skills Unit, with particular expertise in its regional economic development and value chains portfolios. She also advises on partnership opportunities for the MIF's grant and investment activities.

Once a niche concept at the intersection of business and development, social entrepreneurship is now mainstream. A social entrepreneur, according to Ashoka founder Bill Draper, who coined the term in 1980, is a person with system-changing solutions for the world's most urgent social problems. A social enterprise is one that deliberately expands access to goods, services, income, and employment opportunities for vulnerable populations as part of its core business while seeking return on investment. Social entrepreneurship is increasingly appealing to people, and the idea of using a MBA degree to do good while doing well has grown in popularity on campuses and in businesses around the globe.

At Harvard, the Social Enterprise Initiative is a big part of the MBA experience, with more than 90 Harvard Business School faculty engaged in social enterprise research and teaching. At Stanford, the Center for Social Innovation encourages business students to focus their academic efforts in areas such as the environment, international development, health care, and education; and the Social Enterprise at Kellogg (SEEK) program at the University of Michigan helps students understand the purposeful intersection between management and society across all organizations and industries. In the United Kingdom, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford's Saïd Business School stands out for its variety of social entrepreneurship electives and MBA projects on social innovation. These are some of the leaders, but just about every major business program around the world is moving to incorporate socially sustainable business practices.

Eric Borgelt / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While there is little doubt that social enterprises offer huge potential as sustainable drivers of development, growth, and job creation, as with other new and emerging sectors, social enterprises are highly dependent on their environment -- whether the ecosystems around them support or constrain their growth. A key bottleneck is the shortage of high-quality management talent to help lead and grow social enterprises. Two recently launched organizations are helping to fill this human capital gap.

Venture for America

Venture for America was launched in 2011 by Andrew Yang to channel young people to train as entrepreneurs in early-stage companies in Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, and other U.S. cities. The premise was that this would help the companies succeed and create jobs in these communities. It would also prepare young social entrepreneurs to go on to lead a future generation of businesses. According to Yang, the Venture for America fellows are great examples and role models--they've typically turned down short-term gains because of their desire to have a positive impact and build something. They're helping companies and communities flourish and creating new opportunities for themselves and others.


In 2013, Robert Mosbacher, former CEO of the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, started Foundation BizCorps Colombia in Bogotá, Colombia. BizCorps' mission is to provide growth-oriented businesses in Colombia with access to the human capital they need to unlock their full potential, expand more rapidly, and drive job creation, economic growth, and impact. A new partnership will be launched in October 2015 between BizCorps and the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) of the Inter-American Development Bank Group. Over the next 18 months, BizCorps and the MIF will support 19 MBA graduates from the United States and Europe ("BizCorps associates") and match each with Colombian firms that are actively seeking high-quality talent to achieve growth in an accelerated manner. BizCorps' goal is to address the human capital challenge of Colombian social enterprises by connecting high-potential businesses to talented MBA grads. During the year-long engagement, the associates will work closely with the leadership of small enterprises in Colombia to achieve ambitious growth and impact targets. If the new BizCorps partnership works, the MIF hopes to see it expand throughout Colombia and Latin America.

It is heartening to see programs like these emerging, in response to the growing supply of students and entrepreneurs who want to see their work have social impact. Such mentoring and training opportunities enhance young people's potential, which will benefit companies and communities around the world.

From the Multilateral Investment Fund Trends blog