Campus News / Spring 2017

DU stakes a claim in the world of social enterprise

At the Denver-based Women’s Bean Project — founded by alumna Jossy Eyre (MSW ’86) — the mission is to hire chronically unemployed women to produce its soup mixes and other food products, providing the workers with counseling and job training along the way.

For DU sophomores Meredith Gee and Sam Schooler, the idea was a ride-sharing app called Wanderlift that helps Front Range adventure lovers get into the mountains while relieving air pollution and traffic congestion.

And for senior Nathan Egan, it was his work on EMS Relay, a program that allows paramedics in the field to send a patient’s medical information to waiting surgeons as their ambulance speeds toward the hospital, shortening the admission process by a few lifesaving minutes.

Though they vary in size and scope, these projects are all examples of social enterprises, businesses that tackle social problems big and small while generating renewable revenue streams.

“The world’s problems can no longer be solved by politics or business alone,” says Erik Mitisek, executive director of DU’s entrepreneurship-focused Project X-ITE, which sponsored a social enterprise summit on campus last fall. “It takes all of us —c ompanies, nonprofits, the public sector — to really collaborate and think creatively on how to solve some of the world’s biggest issues.”

Social enterprises create value for underserved, underrepresented or disadvantaged people or for the environment. And among students and recent college graduates, they have never been more popular than they are today. In the 2015 Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, a majority of younger Americans said their top priority in a job was “making a difference in society,” as opposed to older Americans, who listed “making as much money as possible” as their primary concern when asked the same question.

“I think there’s a general sense that young people today don’t just care about making money; they also care about the impact they have on the world,” says Wanderlift co-founder Schooler, 19, a computer science major. “A social enterprise doesn’t just return money to its owners; it has a positive impact on society.”


Building the foundation 

As you would expect from a university whose commitment to the public good is right there in its vision statement, social enterprise concepts are nurtured and explored in some fashion in nearly every building on the DU campus. In the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW), the Organizational Leadership and Policy Practice concentration prepares students to make careers out of advancing human rights and promoting social justice.

“Social workers were the original social entrepreneurs — those working on business models to address social issues,” says Amanda McBride, dean of GSSW.

Aspiring social entrepreneurs can find their footing at the University’s Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning (CCESL), which is working with Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that provides strategic support to social entrepreneurs, to offer regular “Work on Purpose” workshops designed to help students identify their passions around public good — and ways to turn those passions into viable careers.

“The idea is to provide a space for students to think about what their values are and how that can drive what they want to do, in terms of the kind of impacts they’re interested in,” says CCESL director Anne DePrince.

Social enterprise also is a hot topic at the Daniels College of Business, where the new Denver MBA program includes a social-good project as one of four business challenges students must conquer. A winter-quarter elevator-pitch competition found undergraduate and graduate students explaining their public-good-focused business ideas to a panel of would-be investors.

“Our students want real-world experience, and increasingly that means putting them to work on business ideas that have to do with making the world a better place,” says Daniels Dean Brent Chrite. “It’s an interest that is growing both at DU and around the country, and our goal is to prepare students for careers in business of all kinds, including social enterprise.”


Leveraging DU expertise 

Last fall, thanks to a $10 million gift from donor Laura Barton and her family, DU added another public-good-focused entity to its mix. The Barton Institute for Philanthropy and Social Enterprise, headed by former Denver Foundation president David Miller, has an ambitious mission: To address major social issues and improve society by promoting and enhancing traditional and new forms of philanthropy, social enterprise, and partnerships among the private, public, nonprofit and academic sectors.

“Our goal is to do projects that connect DU to the Denver community,” Miller says. “I want to leverage all the expertise here at DU to help lower the transaction costs of these projects. You could have law students helping to write contracts, business students doing business modeling, and social work, psychology or education students evaluating the impact of social enterprises.”

To further its mission, the institute will develop social enterprise-related programs for DU students, making the University a magnet for aspiring social entrepreneurs. The institute also is eyeing the creation of a “policy lab” where students and faculty can help Denver-area governments and nonprofits measure their success and conceive new approaches.


Lessons from the real world 

Project X-ITE, a collaboration among DU’s Sturm College of Law, Daniels College of Business and Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science, aims to spur and support entrepreneurship —s ocial and otherwise — on campus and throughout Denver. Its Social Entrepreneurship Summit in November featured roundtables and group discussions on such topics as social innovation, funding a new business and the importance of public-private partnerships.

A featured speaker at the event was Grace Hanley Wright, who graduated from DU in 2008 with a political science degree. Soon after, she enrolled in the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA program at Colorado State, traveling to India with fellow students to investigate why more women were dying in childbirth there than anywhere else in the world. The group was surprised to learn that anemia was a leading culprit of maternal deaths. They launched a nonprofit called Ascent Global Market Solutions and set to work designing a low-cost iron supplement pill that was packaged like birth control to increase adherence among the women who needed it.

Wright, who now teaches entrepreneurship to CSU undergraduates, says she’s glad to have found work with a sense of purpose.

“People are really critical of millennials for saying that we need purpose, but I am glad that more people are searching for purpose in their work,” she says. “I believe we’ll have a better world because of that.”



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