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White House internship reveals promise of social business

Plenty of college students have that “Aha!” moment, when they realize exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. Not many, though, can say they had theirs in the White House.

That’s exactly what happened to Laura Mueller-Soppart, an economics and political science combined major. Previous community service work through Northeastern had already showed her the profound impact that service organizations can have on their communities. Her White House internship built on those experiences by showcasing how social businesses could do work that had been fulfilled almost exclusively by nonprofit organizations.

“The idea of social innovation inspired me and completely changed my trajectory at Northeastern,” said Mueller-Soppart, who is scheduled to graduate in December.

Mueller-Soppart spent four months in 2011 as an intern on the Obama administration’s Domestic Policy Council, where she worked on veterans’ issues and components of the Affordable Care Act. From that experience, she learned firsthand how policy creates opportunities for entrepreneurs who are equally eager to promote social good and succeed financially.

“Social entrepreneurship highlights how profit and positive change can come together in a way that make a real social impact,” she said.

Mueller-Soppart’s White House internship was bookended by two other rewarding experiential-learning opportunities. She began the year working in Belgium as a legislative aide in the European Union, and the final four months of 2011 were spent in Chicago at the MacArthur Foundation, where she helped develop programs that encouraged grant recipients to pool their resources in order to achieve more with finite funds.

Upon her return to campus, where she serves as edit0r-in-chief of the Northeastern University Political Review, Mueller-Soppart became involved in Northeastern’s Social Enterprise Institute. She traveled to South Africa last summer to work with microentrepreneurs who were launching new businesses; she will return again this summer as a teaching assistant for SEI founder and director Dennis Shaughnessy, an executive professor of entrepreneurship and innovation in the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

“Social enterprise is perfect for someone like me studying policy and economics,” she said.

Mueller-Soppart is eager to apply performance metrics to social businesses. She is getting her chance now by working on co-op with Massachusetts’ Federal Grants Management Office, a division of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, which is wrapping up its oversight of federal stimulus dollars in the state and is now instituting a new, transparent program that will track the efficiency of future government innovation projects.

Performance metrics, she noted, also apply to smaller-scale social enterprise; many investors are eager to support businesses that promote the greater good, but they want to know their investments will make a tangible difference.

“It’s not just about trial and error,” she said. “It’s about trial and error and then learning something as you go forward.”