When you hear the words “social entrepreneur,” who first comes to mind? For many of us it is someone like Scott Harrison, big city club promoter turned master storyteller of Charity Water, or Wendy Kopp, dogged mastermind behind Teach for America. For others, it might be a global innovator—William Kamkwamba, “the boy who harnessed the wind” in his home country of Malawi and now works at San Francisco-based IDEO.org, or maybe even Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and “shero” to so many.
You probably don’t think of someone like Priscilla Torres, senior at Texas Lutheran University (TLU) and a veteran who served multiple tours in Iraq. Wearing a sweatshirt that reads, “Love God, Love People, Hate Debt,” this 31-year-old Latina sparkplug explained the social enterprise she is starting: “We’re going to coach people to make a series of small steps that allows them to get out of debt and start accumulating wealth, so they can live the life they want and be generous to others with God’s blessings.”
Priscilla is a social entrepreneurship major at TLU, a private school with 1,350 students that sits on a sweet, little piece of farmland in Seguin, Texas. Debt is no small concern; 98 percent of the kids at TLU are on financial aid and 55 percent are first-generation college students.
Academic programs focused on social entrepreneurship have exploded in the last five years, often within the context of graduate business schools, but increasingly as undergraduate opportunities as well. Ashoka U has designated more than 20 colleges and universities around the world—including Brown, Duke, Dublin City University, Arizona State, and the University of Maryland—as Changemaker Campuses for their work in social innovation education. The effort to network these programs is laudable, and yet the range of the kinds of schools and students that get involved has remained relatively limited thus far.
For Alicia Olson, business professor and co-founder of the 2-year-old social entrepreneurship major at TLU, the annual gathering of Ashoka U-affiliated educators last year at Brown “felt like a sorority that you had to be invited into.”
One fellow educator, upon finding out that she taught and lived in small town Texas, said, “So you’re like, the man.”
“There is a huge rebel in me,” Olson explains, “so to be called the man—it was just surreal.”
Olson attended many sessions where the challenge of breeding empathy in today’s students was explored. She found the discussion puzzling: “What was going unsaid was that maybe these students from elite schools don’t have as much empathy, because they’ve been taught to step all over each other to get into these places.”
Sitting in Olson’s class elucidates some of the ways in which kids from low-income backgrounds are actually at an advantage to becoming effective entrepreneurs in many ways. They don’t need to engineer any empathy for those they aim to serve because, well, they are those they aim to serve. Xandria Quichocho spoke proudly of her own mother, who raised her four daughters while running a daycare and going back to get her degree so that she could be a teacher. Xandria is a gifted cellist, and hopes to one day use her musicality and her college degree to honor her mother’s legacy by helping low-income kids—a la the support and advocacy network El Sistema.
The Lutheran faith is relatively small (18 million in the United States compared to Catholicism’s nearly 80 million), in part because it is governed by the idea that people shouldn’t evangelize, but serve. Traditionally that service has taken the form of missionary trips or local efforts like soup kitchens, but these thoroughly modern and impassioned young people figure, why can’t it take the form of social innovation?
Judith Hoffman, Alicia’s collaborator in creating the program at TLU—the only social entrepreneurship major at a university in Texas—was born and raised in a poor home in Seguin, and was the first person in her family to go to college, like so many of her students. She has gone on to get multiple degrees in history and a Ph.D. in geography, all while raising three kids. It’s no wonder she can identify with many of her students: “Some of them are working a couple of jobs and going to school all day, and then doing their homework all night. Some have kids of their own or parents they have to take care. They get a few hours of sleep and then—boom—they’re back it. And they’re the ones pulling the As and Bs.”
If that isn’t good training for the inexhaustible energy needed to be a successful entrepreneur, what is?
As the field of social entrepreneurship continues to expand—inside educational institutions, through fellowships like Echoing Green and incubators like Fast Forward, and at conferences like Opportunity Collaboration and SOCAP—it’s critical that we break down “the fourth wall” between the serving and the served. Unlikely social entrepreneurs like Olson, Hoffman, and their students counter stereotypes about the role of faith in innovation, and complicate the field’s ideas about empathy and grit. And while the field has done a lot to honor movers and shakers from affected communities in the Global South, it’s less often that you hear entrepreneurial ideas from low-income Americans for uplift and transformation.
Social entrepreneurs and those who educate, network, and fund them must constantly ask themselves: Who isn’t in the room, and what do we lose by their absence? It’s not just the global community from which privileged entrepreneurs stand to learn—it’s also people from the same country, but who live worlds away politically, religiously, or economically.
Ashoka U, for its part, recognizes the value of diversifying its network. It’s invited TLU to take the first steps toward becoming an official Changemaker Campus. Olsen isn’t giving up either. The annual gathering is coming up later this month at the University of Maryland and, this time, she’s bringing a posse of women.