Teaching the Key Skills of Successful Social Entrepreneurs

What if we taught the key mindsets and skill sets that help make successful social entrepreneurs?

In the past few years, there has been an exponential increase in social entrepreneurship classes at universities. In most of these classes, professors teach students how to create business plans for social ventures. And many of these courses are excellent.

But what if we went beyond this? What if we taught the key mindsets and skill sets that help make successful social entrepreneurs?

For the past six years, the Transformative Action Institute (TAI) has been promoting a curriculum that teaches these skills. From in-depth studies of social innovators, we have identified seven important competencies that are essential for success:

1. Leadership. These people take initiative and action to solve problems (rather than complaining about what’s wrong).

2. Optimism. These people are confident that they can achieve a bold vision, even when many other people doubt them. They have a strong sense of self-efficacy and a belief that they have control to change their circumstances.

3. Grit. This is a combination of perseverance, passion, and hard work—the relentless drive to achieve goals, complete commitment to achieving their task.

4. Resilience in the face of adversities, obstacles, challenges, and failures. When things fall apart, these people rise to the occasion. They thrive in the most ferocious storms. They see failures as valuable feedback.

5. Creativity and innovation. These people see new possibilities and think in unconventional ways. They see connections and patterns where few other people would imagine.

6. Empathy. These people are able to put themselves in the shoes of others, and imagine perspectives other than their own; this is one of the most valuable qualities for understanding the needs of others whom they serve.

7. Emotional and social intelligence. These people are excellent at connecting with others and building strong relationships.

The important thing to note here is that each one of these qualities is something that people can develop with practice. There is a tremendous amount of scientific evidence that people can grow in each of these capacities. They can see statistically significant progress.

For a long time, people thought that these traits were fixed. You either had them or you didn’t. There were some people who were born creative, and others who would never have an ounce of creative inspiration. There were some people who were naturally optimistic, and others who just were naturally pessimistic. People couldn’t change.

But now we know that people can develop these competencies. Just in the same way that college students can learn a foreign language at age 20, so too can they learn the key skills for being great social innovators—becoming proficient, or even “fluent,” in these core competencies.

First piloted at UCLA in 2005, this course has now been taught at more than 30 universities across the world including Yale, Princeton, Cornell, NYU, Johns Hopkins, and UC Berkeley. Both Echoing Green and Ashoka U have recognized the organization as an innovator in social entrepreneurship education. In surveys, more than 90 percent of students said this class changed their lives.

However, the financial downturn has made it more difficult to innovate on campus. Faculty and administrators face an uphill battle because of budget woes. How can you offer new course ideas when universities are cutting deep into traditional course offerings, and hiring fewer and fewer faculty? TAI’s module for social entrepreneurship is adaptable and cost-effective for universities because practicing social entrepreneurs from the local community can be brought in to teach as adjuncts. The TAI curriculum gives instructors a teaching manual to draw from, cutting down their course preparation time, while students benefit from an exchange with real-life social entrepreneurs who can share their experiences.

For instructors who have adapted TAI’s curriculum, one of the keys to its success is its flexibility. This is not an all-or-nothing approach. Great success has come from incorporating a small section into an existing course, circumventing the need for new course approval, which can be a lengthy and involved process. Grace Davie, professor at Queen’s College, CUNY, adapted elements of the curriculum into her existing African history course. Davie casts figures in African history as social entrepreneurs: visionaries and innovators who have fought for change in their societies. She uses the concept of social entrepreneurship and a portfolio assignment from the curriculum to help each student identify the changes they want to make in the world.

Let me finish by talking about this portfolio assignment, because it’s one of the keys to the success of this course. College students often have passion and energy and a desire to make a difference, but they frequently have no idea what they want to choose as a major, let alone what “big, hairy, audacious goals” they have for changing the world. We have students spend at least five weeks engaging in a rigorous assessment of their talents, strengths, skills, passions, and personal histories. Many students have reported that this was the most meaningful assignment they have ever had at any educational level. It helps them figure out what they want to do with their lives.

Our goal now is to help spread this curriculum to more than 200 colleges and universities across the world: to help train the next generation of social entrepreneurs, innovators, and problem solvers for the 21st century.

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  • Amrit Deep Dhungana's avatar

    BY Amrit Deep Dhungana

    ON November 1, 2011 10:31 AM

    Dear Sir,
    I like the concept about social entrepreneurship. I like to study it. But right now I am student of Bachelor Degree, Studying at St. Xavier’s College , Maitighar, Kathmandu , Nepal. Its my last year i.e my 7th sem is running on. After Bachelor Degree, I like to study about social entrepreneurship, for that what should I do?? Will you please sugeest me.

    Amrit Deep Dhungana

  • BY Steve Kuptz, Founder Wakeland Housing and Developm

    ON November 2, 2011 02:22 PM


    I am Stanford graduate (class of ‘81) and a serial social entrepreneur with a long standing commitment to affordable housing and education here in San Diego.  I am in the process of exploring the potential for teaching social entrepreneurship to our high school juniors and seniors here at Santa Fe Christian.  We have an active Missions program at school where we send 250 students, faculty and staff around the world to countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Thailand to name a few.  We are also in the process of exploring the potential for local “mission” work through affordable housing projects here in San Diego.  Most of our “mission work” is project specific but with little demonstrable long-term sustainable impacts beyond the week or two we spend in the communities we are serving.  Do you believe your curriculum is adaptable to high school and, if so, what would we need to do to explore the possiblities for our school?

  • BY Virginia Campo

    ON November 3, 2011 11:56 AM

    I was priviledge to take Scott´s class while studying in the Global Leadership program and I am one of the people in the 90%... this class changed my life and empowered me to think that I have the power and now the tools to change the world.

    I want to thank you Scott for the work you do and for inspiring me to become an inspiration to other people.


  • BY Ekaterina Besshaposhnikowa, found Our future

    ON November 15, 2011 12:25 AM

    Dear Sir,
    Could you please give me an advice, where can I join the education program in social entrepreneurship, which could be partly a full-time training and partly distance learning? Many universities are offering the full-time MBA programs which include the social entrepreneurship modules. But it’s completely impossible for working people from other country.
    Thank you in advance for your help
    Ekaterina Besshaposhnikova, Russia

  • BY Aaron Faucher, Northwestern University

    ON November 27, 2011 06:35 AM

    Great article! Is there any potential that this education program could be scaled to educated social entrepreneurs in developing nations?

    I see serious potential in developing the skills of local youth through entrepreneurship (especially marketing) education.

    I would sincerely value your thoughts and opinions on my idea of a “youth marketing corps” for social enterprises in Jinja, Uganda.—>

    Scott, have you worked at all with the Social Enterprise (SEEK) program at Kellogg School of Management (Northwestern University)?

  • The great debate on whether entrepreneurs are made or are they born entrepreneurs and it totally depends on what you read as to what findings you will discover.

  • You did a great job. Your writing style is really impressive and I must say that please keep up the good work like the firm:

  • Thanks for writing such a great post. If you have some more thoughts like this one then please share them all here. I would love to read your guide. Here, I have also mentioned a guide link to learn how to write an essay. This is also good as I personally read it and learn alot from it.

  • Nancy   Louis's avatar

    BY Nancy Louis, Adams

    ON July 27, 2015 03:57 AM

    Social entrepreneurship is a successful in university. Teaching is a crucial element of success in social entrepreneurship.

  • BY Frank P. Walters

    ON April 19, 2016 01:41 AM

    Good points. I would also add some other skills:
    1. responsibility
    2. attention
    3. enterprise
    How do you think, can one improve these skills?

  • I would say that sometimes being stuborn and obsessed is the best way to succeed in the entreprenarial field. I mean by that that when no ones believe in your project you have to be obsessed with what you do to make it succeed !

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