Teaching Social Entrepreneurship: Tips and Resources for Educators

March 13, 2013 at 7:50 am Leave a comment

By Jacen Greene, Ames Fellow for Social Entrepreneurship at Portland State University

Impact Entrepreneurs at Portland State University approaches social entrepreneurship education using three pillars: leadership effectiveness, social innovation, and business fundamentals. Whether working with university students or startup entrepreneurs, nonprofit managers or corporate intrapreneurs, we’ve found that cultivating those three areas of competencies within each individual we serve helps develop their capacity for impact. In this post, we share our favorite tools and resources for each pillar, shaped by our experience teaching social entrepreneurship to students and professionals around the world.

Leadership Effectiveness: Seldom can a single individual or organization acting alone achieve transformational change. For social entrepreneurs committed to solving the world’s most pressing challenges, the ability to lead — effectively managing the self, working with staff and employees, coordinating with stakeholders and partners — is essential to enacting real change. Ashoka.org, a global leader in social entrepreneurship, has identified empathy as one of the most effective traits of a successful leader and changemaker. Their website on empathy provides research, tools and approaches to help cultivate empathy in students of social entrepreneurship. Likewise, Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence underpins a number of widely-accepted approaches to personal development and leadership.

Members of the 2011 Social Innovation Incubator Circuit Program.

Members of the 2011 Social Innovation Incubator Circuit Program discussing how to measure their social and environmental impacts.

Social Innovation: Design thinking is increasingly recognized as an important skill for those in any field, but for social entrepreneurs attempting to address seemingly intractable problems, it becomes an incredibly powerful tool. IDEO’s Human-Centered Design toolkit draws on a number of proven approaches to provide a comprehensive, concise guide to inclusive innovation, covering everything from interviewing best practices to rapid prototyping. The Stanford Social Innovation Review and New York Times’ Fixes column provide excellent coverage of successful models and emerging best practices.

Business Fundamentals: Within the growing field of entrepreneurship education, a pair of closely-linked tools are increasingly being used in conjunction to launch startups: Steve Blanks’ customer development process and Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas. Both are hands-on, highly practical approaches that provide a clear path to starting and refining a new business or project. Organizational skills in human resource management, finance and accounting, business/nonprofit law, marketing, fundraising and impact measurement are also needed for successful social entrepreneurship, and best provided by professors or subject-matter experts.

ELP group

Mercy Corps staff using the Business Model Canvas at one of our Entrepreneurial Leadership Program trainings.

Entrepreneurship is a profoundly risky endeavor. Social entrepreneurship, even more so. The field still lacks much of the supporting frameworks and early-stage capital available to traditional businesses, but expectations are often higher, with social, financial and environmental returns targeted in tandem. Because of the perseverance required for any social enterprise to achieve success, it’s important that founders align their personal and professional purpose. If they can address a problem deeply meaningful to them through their social enterprise, it becomes much more than just a business — it becomes a tool for social change and personal fulfillment. We hope that by teaching social entrepreneurship, you can do the same.

Curriculum Resources:

The Sullivan Foundation is working to create a recommended set of courses for an undergraduate social entrepreneurship minor or concentration. The curriculum, still under development, is open for comment and collaboration. 

The Ashoka U Education Resource Handbook provides a comprehensive listing of university programs, books and case studies, conferences, business plan competitions, and faculty focused on social entrepreneurship education.


University students learning from social entrepreneurs in India as part of our Social Enterprise Field Studies.

Entry filed under: Social Entrepreneurship. Tags: , , .

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