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Social Change and Business Methods Intersect

Swarthmore students carry on a long legacy of social entrepreneurship

Social entrepreneurship could be defined as “doing good by doing well,” says Joy Charlton, executive director of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. Swarthmore students are intensifying their exploration of this business model, in which the social rather than the financial value is the primary driver.

“It’s basically a movement where you solve social problems in a financially sustainable way,” notes Yohan Sumathipala ’16, co-founder of the new Social Entrepreneurship Hub. The Hub consists of a constellation of student groups advised by Jennifer Magee, associate director for student programs at the Lang Center. 

The Hub was formally jump-started last spring when Swarthmore students won a Knight Foundation–sponsored contest called Lend for Philly by mapping the greatest number of small, locally owned businesses for a smartphone app. The prize of up to $20,000 will fund a campus microfinance initiative called SwatFinancial. 

Managed by Jason Mendoza ’16, SwatFinancial will provide small loans to local businesses in need, engaging in “impact investing”—a hybrid business model located along the continuum between traditional business and nonprofits. The most notable example of this type of investing is the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize–winning Grameen Bank, initiated in 1976 by Muhammad Yunus. The bank pioneered successful small-scale lending to the rural poor in Bangladesh.

 Efforts to educate students about social entrepreneurship are also underway on campus. A group of Tri-College students and staff examined the subject in a five-session seminar sponsored by the Lang Center and Haverford’s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship this fall. Also this fall, a weeklong series of talks by social entrepreneurs was arranged by Max Kaye ’14, another Hub co-founder now working at Columbia Business School’s Lang Entrepreneurship Program. The Lang Center has offered a half-credit course on the subject as well as two workshops. 

Students and alumni with extensive real-world experience have nurtured their classmates’ interest in social entrepreneurship. Lang Scholar Minh Vo ’15 (who established a large mentoring program for orphans in Vietnam and worked for a social enterprise dedicated to affordable health care in India) and Periclean Scholar Nimesh Ghimire ’15 (who founded a peace-building and community-innovation youth center in Nepal) offered a Hub-sponsored fall workshop for students starting their own projects.

SwatTank, the student business competition held during the College’s Jonathan R. Lax ’71 Conference for Entrepreneurship, welcomes social entrepreneurial proposals as well. The Social Entrepreneurship Hub and the existing Entrepreneurship Club have built a good working relationship, with the help of the Lang Center and the Center for Innovation and Leadership, both of which are providing support for the April 11 Lax Conference. 

Building on the momentum, the Lang Center is bringing Professor of Social Entrepreneurship Denise Crossan from Trinity College, Dublin to serve as the 2015–16 Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change. 

The rapid expansion of these pursuits at Swarthmore is another extension of the College’s long legacy of social activism. The Lang Opportunity Scholarship Program, established in 1980 to support students’ innovative solutions to social problems, exemplifies one of the many social initiatives worldwide for which the Lang Center now serves as an umbrella. The Project Pericles Fund of Swarthmore College is another.