Tucked away in a windowless nook in the basement of Babson College’s Olin Hall is a well-kept desk, clutter-free except for a laptop, a few photos, a rejected pair of sandals, and a couple of books. It’s a humble setting for a person of humility. Shriyans Bhandari, thin, soft-spoken, sits quietly behind the desk. The Mumbai native fits his surroundings.
Just one year ago, Bhandari founded GreenSole, a social venture that has converted more than 10,000 donated athletic shoes into sandals for underserved Indian populations. Seeking to scale his fledgling Mumbai-based startup, he then found himself on Babson’s Wellesley, Massachusetts campus in pursuit of a one-year master’s in entrepreneurial leadership.
As Bhandari eats a vegetarian burger, the 21-year-old describes how he founded GreenSole with fellow competitive long-distance runner Ramesh Dhami. While on training runs, the duo often lamented how wasteful it was to burn through three or four pairs of running shoes a year. After all, the soles of the shoes were still intact; but the sides were ripped, rendering the shoes useless to someone logging upward of 70 miles a week. So Bhandari and Dhami figured out a way to salvage the soles, use the ripped material for sandal straps, and essentially recycle the shoes into sandals for nearly zero cost.
After establishing partnerships with a manufacturing facility and companies Canon, Tata, Harman Group, and others, GreenSole now expects to deliver 50,000 sandals to rural Indian villages in 2016 alone. Much of this growth has happened since Bhandari enrolled at Babson last autumn. And his ambition is even greater: He hopes to provide footwear for the world’s underserved, shoeless people by 2023.
But out of all the early growth, media attention, and awards, one letter is what Bhandari is most proud of. “We received a letter from President Obama,” he says, lighting up, handing over a signed letter from Barack and Michelle Obama. “Thank you for your gift,” the letter begins. “It was such a nice gesture and we were touched by your generosity. Your thoughtfulness reflects the extraordinary kindness of the American people.”
“He thought I was American,” Bhandari says, cracking a smile. What gift did Bhandari send the most powerful couple in the free world? “A copy of my book. And a letter describing what we are doing with GreenSole,” he says, handing over a book with a bird on the cover, titled Birds of Aravallis. “It’s a different subject. Photography.” Inside is more than a hundred pages of resplendent photographs and painstaking details of all the birds found within the Aravallis mountain range, close to where Bhandari grew up. He completed the book before finishing high school. “My parents said the best way to bring the birds to the world would be through a book,” Bhandari recalls of his passion for nature and photography.
“I sent him a letter back thanking him and asking him to think of us when he discards his shoes,” Bhandari says of the president. “And I told him we’d recycle them and give them back to him.”
SOCIAL ENTERPRISE AT AN ENTREPRENEURSHIP-HEAVY UNIVERSITY
Bhandari is a walking metaphor for Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Business, which granted him a master’s degree this spring. Despite being located more than 10 miles away, when it comes to graduate business education Babson is often overshadowed by the massive and elite Harvard Business School and MIT Sloan School of Management. But just like Bhandari’s quiet strength and confidence, Babson’s entrepreneurial prowess and spirit also quietly plug along, making waves. Most recently, the business-only university was ranked second in entrepreneurship by The Financial Times, trailing only Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Its two big brothers closer to Boston Harbor, meanwhile, finished 11th (MIT Sloan) and 13th (Harvard).
Babson’s entrepreneurial chops inform the work at the Lewis Institute, the college’s hub for all things social enterprise. Founded in 2010 with a $10.8 million gift from Alan and Harriet Lewis, the institute serves as a campus and community cauldron of social innovation. In addition to housing initiatives like the Social Innovation Lab, Food Solution, the Fund for Global Healthcare Entrepreneurship, and Fostering Entrepreneurial Youth, it offers entrepreneurs a residence program and social innovation fellowship.
Lewis Institute Managing Director Cheryl Kiser has been around for it all. In 2009, Babson nabbed Kiser from Boston College’s Center for Corporate Citizenship, tapping her to help launch the institute. “I can honestly say, at that time, very few students walked through our door — if any,” Kiser says of her waning days at Boston College’s corporate social responsibility-focused center. “It was a finance school and they were putting people into Goldman Sachs and Fidelity — the Milton Friedman Model was very much at work. These were kids who were going to go out and make as much money as possible. The notion of corporate social responsibility was not a big deal.”
Kiser made it clear from the get-go the new venture would not focus on corporate social responsibility, or CSR. “We clearly distanced ourselves from that,” she says. “Corporate social responsibility is good, but it’s either philanthropy or it’s compliance. And for us it’s just not good enough if we’re a school that wants to create economic and social value simultaneously and not subsequently.”
A ‘SEA CHANGE’ FOR MBA STUDENTS
Kiser brought Emily Weiner from the CSR department at Boston College, and the two set out to create a cultural shift from the fringes at Babson. First they began developing and paying for social enterprise-related case studies to use in traditional business courses, often producing two or three a year. They went into classes and gave guest lectures on social enterprise. And when Babson had a curricular overhaul a couple of years ago, Kiser was invited to weigh in on the changes.
“We never would have been invited in five years ago,” Kiser admits. “It’s considered a very precious curriculum that you don’t get to touch. The fact that they’re asking for help is because they realize the students want more —and it’s more than just corporate social responsibility and service. What they want is some rigor around how to think about business, and also real metrics.”
For Robert Turner, an assistant dean and financial accounting professor at Babson, the do-gooder presence makes sense. “All of a sudden there has been a sea change within students coming to the MBA program,” Turner says of the increased interest among students in social innovation and impact. “They are pushing us, which is just phenomenal.”
THE FORMATION OF A ‘SOCIAL INNOVATION SUPPORT GROUP’
One of those students is John Kluge. After seeing the limitations of nonprofits — in particular, the one he co-founded, Toilet Hackers, dedicated to improving sanitation and hygiene around the world — Kluge came to Babson for the Lewis Institute. He also came for a specific course — though it was no longer offered when he arrived on campus. It was a course taught by Kiser based on a book she co-authored, Creating Social Value. “I read that book before coming here. And that, as well as sitting in an accounting class as a prospective student, was all the information I needed to come here,” Kluge recalls.
“They have literally written a book on this subject and there is a course. That to me said I should come here,” he continues. “And when I got here the book was here but there was no course. And I wanted to know why.”
So Kluge asked. He also joined a couple of fellow incoming MBAs in asking the admissions office for a list of students who had shown an interest in social entrepreneurship in their applications. There were about 30. Kluge personally invited all of them to his apartment on a Wednesday evening for a “sort of social innovation support group.” Over the school year, the group surged from a handful of participants to nearly 100 members, ranging from undergrads to MBAs. “We hang out, talk about ways to save the world and how to not go broke in the process,” Kluge says. “I came to Babson because I wanted to create opportunities that were different than business as usual. And I saw Babson as a place I could make that happen.”
‘WE SPEND A LOT OF TIME INCUBATING PEOPLE, NOT IDEAS’
Those sentiments are precisely why Kiser, Weiner, and the Lewis Institute continue to thrive and have such an impact on Babson’s relatively small community. Students feel supported and are able to make changes. “We spend a lot of time incubating people, not ideas,” Kiser explains. “We have the courses and curriculum, but what we want is to create a habitat here.”
Shortly after setting up shop, Kiser and crew left the college’s stuffy administration building for an airy space of a kind you’d expect to find in Silicon Valley. “We used to be on the president’s floor because we reported directly to the president, and it was just like a buzzkill because nobody went to the president’s floor,” Kiser explains.
“We were next to the general counsel,” Weiner adds. “And he’s lovely, don’t get me wrong, but it was just too formal.”
More important than switching spaces, Weiner and Kiser made sure the Lewis Institute encouraged community and Babson’s entrepreneurial spirit. “We want people to be brave and courageous and will make decisions that further their purpose and ability to be successful at what they really want to create,” Kiser says.
STUDENT-RUN INITIATIVES THE NORM
To be sure, the creation has manifested in many ways — perhaps the most impressive of which is FoodSol. Founded by the work and interest of Rachel Greenberger and the help of Kiser, FoodSol is an “action tank for food entrepreneurs of all kinds,” created to fill a dearth of food entrepreneurial guidance. In the course of a two-year MBA, Greenberger and others from the Lewis Institute created a full-fledged support program for food entrepreneurs.
More recently, junior Josuel Plasencia has been able to flex the muscles of Babson’s entrepreneurial faculty and administrative support in developing and running his own startup called Project 99, an international “hack-a-thon for inclusion” whose mission is to imbue the next generation of leaders with a strong sense of diversity. Plasencia is also in the process of bringing an international conference to Babson. When he was a junior in high school he attended the National Dominican Students Conference; now, as he approaches the twilight of his undergraduate career, Babson has helped him put in a bid to host the conference, which costs about $40,000 to run.
“And it was never a challenge,” Plasencia says. “The whole entrepreneurship idea creates this atmosphere where people get things done. Any time I have an idea or project that I have the time and energy to do on my end, I know I have someone to talk to and someone who is there to support me in any way they can.”
Assistant Dean Turner sees it the same way. “A big piece of our high rankings is the high touch,” he says. “Our faculty, they have that entrepreneurial spirit as well, regardless of what discipline they’re in.”
TAPPING INTO ACCELERATORS AND SUMMER VENTURE PROGRAMS
At the Lewis Institute, the high touch is apparent in a few avenues. At the most basic level, students may attend an organized luncheon called Good Business Friday. While a speaker is often brought in, Weiner and Kiser say the point is to have a conversation. “It gives our students the space to understand the complexities that sometimes — even when they want to do the right thing in business it’s not as easy as your intention — sometimes it’s very hard work to deal with all that,” Weiner explains. “And we gave them a foundation for understanding how they can build their own social enterprises.”
Socially minded entrepreneurs at Babson are also tapping into the Butler Venture Accelerator Program, which is housed under the umbrella of the Blank Center for Entrepreneurship. Selected teams get a workspace, mentorship, and investment pitch coaching, among many other resources. Teams wishing to take their startups a step further under Babson’s leadership may apply for the Summer Venture Program. Only 15 teams are selected on Babson’s Massachusetts campus; starting this year, a few teams were chosen to participate at Babson’s San Francisco campus.
According to Mary Gale, a lecturer of entrepreneurship at Babson who has served as a faculty mentor and adviser for both the Accelerator and Venture programs, the growing popularity of entrepreneurship has created a more competitive environment for acceptance into the Summer Venture Program. Nowadays, about 70 teams are vying for 15 spots, she says, and social enterprises are right there in the mix.
“I think people think it’s cool. It’s not a weird, separate segment anymore,” says Gale, noting that social enterprise seems to still be in a “Wild West infancy” as an academic discipline. “I’m seeing more social enterprises in business competitions,” she says. “And I think they resonate more with judges and audiences.”
FOSTERING A CHANGE AMONG STUDENTS
Bhandari has graduated and though he still hasn’t received President Obama’s leftover sneakers, GreenSole plans to increase its corporate partnerships from 10 at the beginning of 2016 to 40 or 50 by year’s end. Since the majority of donations come from corporate partners, that’s a big deal. “The ultimate goal is to put footwear on every foot. There are 1.5 billion people without shoes. So that will take time,” Bhandari says. But for someone with a distance runner’s mindset, endurance, and humility, the seemingly impossible task doesn’t seem too much of a stretch.
“People are caring more about climate change, the environment, and CSR,” he points out. “The mood is eco-friendly and (about) saving the environment. It will happen eventually. But it will take time.”
Even if Bhandari and GreenSole don’t shoe every shoeless person in the world, he’s creating change. And, boiled own, that’s what Weiner and Kiser are looking for at the Lewis Institute.
“What we care about is how many mindsets did we impact,” Weiner says. “How have we started to create that shift and change? Plenty of these kids are going to go and work for Goldman Sachs. But how are they creating change?”