Oberlin Should Consider Social Entrepreneurship Program

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 Do you want to find a way to reduce college debt, effectively sort recyclables, or support teens recovering from addiction? Help international students compete at U.S. colleges, support English-as-a-second -language-learners become fluent, build community for neurodivergent individuals, grow local environmental engagement among high school students, or build advocacy to radically change economic inequality? These are only a handful of the goals that inspire the entrepreneurial ventures students and alumni developed this Winter Term in the LaunchU Bootcamp and Pitch Competition.

See a pattern? These Oberlin entrepreneurs are tackling big social and community problems. Per the program’s motto, they are actively working to “change the world.” Their business models all offer innovative solutions to address stubborn problems and apply business concepts to sustainable, scalable activation plans. 

Entrepreneurship comprises the skills to develop an innovative solution to a problem and the knowledge and mind-set to activate that solution for positive impact. Entrepreneurial ventures can be for-profit, nonprofit, a social venture, or a hybrid of these. Entrepreneurship encompasses both new ventures and the instigation and implementation of innovation within an existing organization. In entrepreneurial education, there is no expectation that an entrepreneurial initiative will actually be launched, but rather, by exercising the innovation-activation skill-set students become increasingly confident in their ability to explore solutions to world problems and to map out the steps for positive action. 

Oberlin’s entrepreneurial students are entering the innovation economy. Along with skills in writing, communication, collaboration, creative and critical thinking, those with the skills to innovate and activate for impact — no matter what their field — will be more valuable and better able to navigate positions of leadership. 

Entrepreneurship education is not new to higher education, but it is relatively new to the elite liberal arts college ecosystem. For Oberlin and many of its century-plus-year-old peer schools, entrepreneurship is not even a decade old, and is often positioned as an extracurricular activity rather than a fundamental skill. This is because the perception of entrepreneurship is strictly about starting a business and this aspect of entrepreneurship can be an anathema for leadership inside traditional liberal arts colleges. And many liberal arts students erroneously think entrepreneurship is about developing a business making billions of dollars at the expense of the greater good. Yes, some ventures can be greedy, destructive enterprises, but Oberlin entrepreneurs are demonstrating how ventures can truly deliver for the greater good. 

Last summer, several Oberlin alumni made donations to have me visit our peer schools to see how our entrepreneurship programs compared. I visited members of the Sweet Sixteen and Ohio 5 colleges that had the most robust entrepreneurship programs. 

 There is good news and not-so-good news. First, Oberlin’s LaunchU Bootcamp and Pitch Competition is far more extensive and inclusive than any comparable programs I found among our peers. We are the only competition that is open to the entire Oberlin community — students, alumni, faculty, parents and staff. Our competition is open to any form of enterprise, including for-profit, nonprofit, and social enterprise. The prize amount and ongoing mentor support is equal to or surpasses the best of our peers. 

Where we are behind — in some circumstances by over a decade — is in the development of a formal social entrepreneurship program. This seems ludicrous since Oberlin is known for being academically strong in social justice and environmental stewardship. What we lack is a focused, formalized program aligned with curriculum and the College’s brand that instructs students in ways to innovate solutions to social problems and trains them in the activation skills that can provide real impact. 

What could a social entrepreneurship program look like at Oberlin? Well, I think Oberlin has the opportunity to design a program that is purely Oberlin and possibly a model for others. At its core, it should help our students learn to innovate solutions to the problems they see in the world. It should educate them in activation skills — which help students understand why they need knowledge of key business disciplines. With the launch of the integrative Business concentration, this is a perfect time to explore how social entrepreneurship might be integrated into our students’ college experience. 

I am inviting anyone — faculty, students, and staff — interested in joining a discussion group to explore how social entrepreneurship might be developed at Oberlin. If you are interested please contact me at [email protected]