Alistair Wilson, CEO of School for Social Entrepreneurs, recently made a compelling argument about the limitations of universities in advancing social entrepreneurship. Chief among Wilson’s concerns is the vast number of people excluded from the traditional approach to teaching social enterprise and the importance of including voices far from campus in solving social problems.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the role traditional universities can play in preparing social entrepreneurs to succeed—especially since this role is changing for the better. A growing number of schools are advancing the pedagogy and practice of social enterprise, and today have much more to offer as platforms for social enterprise success than they did a generation ago.

Three particular advances within universities can help bridge the chasm between well-intentioned-but-far-away student social entrepreneurs, and the people and communities they want to help. Universities need to:

1. Bring the voices of stakeholders into the classroom.

The traditional approach to teaching social enterprise starts with faculty in the front of a classroom; faculty serves as a source of the wisdom for students starting social ventures. By design, this approach constricts the real insight student social entrepreneurs need from stakeholders in the communities they hope to serve.  Berkeley-Haas and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business are among the small number of schools that anchor social enterprise instruction in a flipped-classroom, experiential learning opportunity—an environment that ensures consumer voices propel student learning. At Berkeley-Haas, our cornerstone social enterprise course is limited to established, early-stage social venture teams that must apply to take the class, which gives us the opportunity to focus resources on students who are serious about launching social ventures. The students conduct 100 stakeholder interviews over the 11-week class, guided by what they learn from customers each week, and by feedback from faculty and classmates.

Technology enables these teams to reach people across the globe and gain perspective on the problems they are trying to solve. In some cases, our teams travel to other countries over Thanksgiving break to talk with stakeholders in person. For example, one team planning to locate small farming facilities in rural areas of Turkey—where survivors of domestic violence could start small food businesses—traveled there to talk to customers. After some polite conversation, they learned that the women they hoped to help much preferred living in big cities,. The team realized they needed to pivot their model in a way they might have missed otherwise.

2. Be more prescriptive in training social entrepreneurs.

Despite successes like microcredit pioneer Grameen Bank, we should acknowledge that social ventures have not moved the needle on big problems as far as we have hoped. By analyzing our failures, we can be more prescriptive about how to build the field and how educators can guide budding social entrepreneurs. One way to start is by acknowledging that not all problems are equally pressing in terms of the financial, environmental, and human costs they impose on society. The field arguably has too big of a tent for social entrepreneurs, often placing nearly equal value on all social ventures simply because they aim to have some kind of positive social impact.

Pushing students harder to answer challenging questions, and having honest and open conversations about the relative levels of social impact of proposed ventures, is beginning to happen more at traditional universities. The social venture field often over-rewards invention, without a robust consideration of whether clever solutions are actually aligned with and likely to advance human progress. Specifically, universities should push their students to answer questions about:

  • The problems they aim to solve, how the intended beneficiaries experience these problems, and why solving them would be meaningful to society
  • Whether they have effective solutions that emerge from deep discourse with their intended beneficiaries and other stakeholders
  • The magnitude of the problems they aim to solve—and the size of the venture opportunity when they have good solutions that are aligned with these problems
  • How their ventures will influence systems and policies at the root of the problems they aim to solve

Financial sustainability is another important ingredient, but unless it is subservient to creating strong alignment between problems and solutions, the need to generate revenue will push the venture away from optimizing social impact. We have found that relentlessly pushing the questions above sometimes helps teams that start as social ventures realize and accept that their idea has great commercial promise—but only in a way that doesn’t intentionally deliver significant impact on a meaningful social or economic problem. We celebrate these discoveries! This kind of clarity is good for both the general commercial venture and social venture ecosystems, as it increases transparency and efficiency.

3. Reimagine the role of the university as a changemaker.

Universities contribute a great deal to society through research-based inquiry, scholarship, and the preparation of students for work and life. But we believe they can do even more. This is especially true of public institutions that are arguably public goods themselves. Berkeley-Haas is embracing this view through a partnership with the online learning initiative Philanthropy University, which provides high-quality, free training from instructors universities such as Berkeley, Stanford, Harvard, and Cornell. Students who complete all of the courses on the platform can earn a free certificate in social sector leadership from Berkeley-Haas. So far, we have enrolled more than 225,000 online learners from over 180 countries—most of whom couldn’t attend in person—and our completion rates are well above industry norms for online courses. Programs like this democratize social impact learning, and develop online communities that can facilitate the collaboration and idea exchange the social venture field needs to become more effective.

We are cautiously optimistic that these approaches will create more effective and impactful social entrepreneurs. We hope that more and more traditional universities begin embrace the moral and strategic imperative we feel—to stand on the shoulders of social venture pioneers, and help the field achieve its highest and best use.