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3Qs: Business for global good

When professor Dennis Shaughnessy founded Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute five years ago, the first program included 10 students in one seminar. Now, hundreds of students are participating in programs that bring a business-focused, interdisciplinary approach to addressing poverty in the developing world through private-sector economic development. Combined with an academic component that includes a minor in global social entrepreneurship and a track in entrepreneurship within the College of Business Administration, the program unites students with budding entrepreneurs to finance and grow their businesses and improve communities. In Shaughnessy’s words, it’s “business for global good.” We asked him to discuss how these programs work, and why these global experiences are so transformative for students.

What are these global experiences like for students, and how do they combine with students’ academic work through the institute?

We offer five-week summer programs in both South Africa and the Dominican Republic, and we partner with local academic and business institutions to reach new disadvantaged communities each year. Our students are interacting with the “Other 3 Billion,” as we call it — those who live on less than $2 a day.

In South Africa, we enter the slums to work with 20 to 25 budding entrepreneurs to help them build their grassroots businesses. We also collaborate with a local entrepreneurship college and center in this effort. In the Dominican Republic, we help open up new “village banks” and give microfinance loans to poor women to help them start small businesses. This summer, we’ll also be working in Cuba as part of the Dominican program. We also invest in these business through capital donated by alums to the institute to support our initiatives.

Ultimately, combining what is learned in the classroom with field experience is the fundamental component. Nothing replaces going to the source to develop relationships with these communities and find out what the real issues are for poor people and families. The field experience is crucial to test the validity of what’s learned in the classroom and build new theories of innovation and entrepreneurship as well. By doing so, our students are advancing new ideas about the global issues they’re encountering in the field.

What do the students gain most from these global experiences?

Our students see what the rest of the world is like, particularly in very poor communities in developing countries, and this aligns with Northeastern’s commitment to supporting students’ global experiences. There’s a transformative experience that happens to these students when they see what life is like for people who weren’t born into the same circumstances or have the same privileges. When we’re in these countries and discussing the issues these communities face, it becomes clear how much more mature our students are becoming, how much they are learning about the world and how they can change it for the better.

Second, the students discover what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. That’s equally as important. For example, students learn how to manage the finances of a village’s two-person grocery store. They develop new practical business skills like how to manage inventory, or how to price products in a highly competitive market, or how to get a bank loan. They return to Northeastern with a new set of abilities and knowledge about how to run a sustainable small business on the frontlines.

Third, our students work side-by-side with students from the local communities, and learn to partner with other students from a radically different background. For example, our students often tell us that they will never forget the relationships they built with students from Khayelitsha [one of the largest slums in Africa], and how building lasting friendships there has changed their view of the world and the definition of success. Students also develop close ties with these countries and communities, and many find co-ops to either stay there after our program or return later to work for a semester. So there’s a strong co-op connection as well.

Is the institute developing new initiatives?

Every spring break, we take our seniors to a different location as part of their capstone experience. Last year, we worked with a very poor Haitian refugee village to offer locals new economic opportunities through microfinance. This year, we just returned from Nicaragua, where students worked with poor farmers producing coffee for the global fair-trade markets. With help from our partnering financial and consulting institutions there, we helped them improve productivity and access to capital, which in turn is beneficial to the entire community.  It was especially gratifying to be able to provide a $10,000 grant to a grassroots project to improve the lives of the poorest members of a Nicaraguan community.

Going forward, we hope to add summer programs in places like India, China and Rwanda.

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