Pamela Hartigan

Social enterprise programs: 'Like little warts on a business school'

“Most of the time, the social enterprise program is like a little wart on the school. It’s a little bit like gender — oh yeah, there’s the one woman who teaches gender — but it’s not a part of the mainstream,” says Pamela Hartigan. “That’s very different at Said.”

As the director of one of the world’s premier centers for social entrepreneurship, the University of Oxford’s Skoll Centre, Pamela Hartigan has an unusual relationship with the subject. “I have come to despise the term,” she says. It emphasizes the separation of business from social responsibility, she explains. In her opinion, the two are inextricably linked.

Which is why she’s set out to systematically break down the barriers between the business school and the center. “Most of the time, the social enterprise program is like a little wart on the school. It’s a little bit like gender — oh yeah, there’s the one woman who teaches gender — but it’s not a part of the mainstream,” she says. “That’s very different at Said.”

She estimates that more than three-quarters of Oxford’s MBAs are directly involved with the center, and the remainder can’t help but be sucked into social impact discussions, which permeate the B-school’s classes. She’s also sought to build the center’s brand and reputation, so the B-school will attract the best and the brightest social entrepreneurs from all over the globe.

Hartigan says she never expected to end up at a business school. She holds a PhD in human developmental psychology from The Catholic University of America and two master’s degrees — one in education from American University and the other in international economics from Institut d’Etudes Européennes Université Libre de Bruxelles. Before joining the Skoll Centre, she was the first managing director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

She chalks up her interest in social entrepreneurship to her childhood in Latin America (“though I sound like an American”), which opened her eyes to gross inequality at an early age. Since then, she’s focused on building opportunities for those without any. Though it sounds like the beginnings of Peace Corps application, Hartigan’s pragmatism dispels the wide-eyed, do-gooder stereotype.

She’s a warm and engaging speaker with a wide network. Her students say that an email from Hartigan can connect them with nearly anyone in the sector. Those connections also bring in top-notch speakers and help secure jobs for the center’s graduates.

We See Genius caught up with Hartigan for her take on social entrepreneurship in business schools and her plans for the center. In a wide-ranging interview, she covers everything from why modern businesses can’t afford to overlook their social impact to her biggest concern for the social enterprise sector.

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In all honesty, I’ve come to despise the term. The reason for that is it continues to dichotomize business into this is where we make our money and this is where we do good. We can’t continue down that route. We have to encourage businesses to not just focus on financial returns but to also look at how to create social value beyond just offering new jobs — the market creates jobs. It’s really about examining your whole supply chain, how you treat your workers, et cetera — that’s where the real power is going to be.

To get right to your definition, social entrepreneurship is about combining innovation, opportunity, and resourcefulness to deal with major challenges around the world.

I would never in a million years have thought I would have been involved in an MBA program. I was not at all convinced that an MBA was of any value whatsoever to an entrepreneur. It seemed like an MBA was focused on “just do it” and not really understanding the context behind the problem. In other words, sending kids out into the world to become investment bankers but not really giving much thought to who are you and what you really want in life.

That’s totally changed, certainly at Oxford. I also teach at Columbia Business School; it’s a fantastic school, but there’s a richness to the Oxford experience that is not equaled by U.S. colleges. I think that stems from the fact that we’ve basically pioneered social innovation and entrepreneurship within the MBA. We’ve existed for over 10 years now, and I feel myself giving a lot of guidance to other MBA schools that are starting up similar programs.

We always think of commercial entrepreneurs as folks who want to set up businesses to make money, and that’s the furthest thing from any entrepreneur I’ve ever know, whether they’re Sergey Brin or Larry Paige. They’re really challenged by a problem. It’s not so much about the money; it’s about solving the issue.

It’s very tough to be an entrepreneur. You’ve got to be kind of crazy. We have this idea of the heropreneur, the lone entrepreneur with the vision. That’s just not reality. Entrepreneurs rarely do this alone; they need teams and cofounders desperately. All of us have entrepreneurial tendencies, but some of us don’t have the persistence and insanity to stick with something for as long as it takes to get it going. We worship these heroic figures, but I think it does a big disservice to aspiring entrepreneurs and people who think, “Oh, I’m not entrepreneur, therefore I can’t get involved.”

I always tell students if you came to business school to learn to be an entrepreneur, that was your first mistake. There is a quality about entrepreneurship that can’t be taught. You can teach the skills and tools to operate a good enterprise, but to have that kind of persistence and drive? That’s something you can’t teach.

Leading corporations and businesses are focused on how to get the best and brightest students to come to them. But they’re finding that students don’t always want to go to the top investment bank. Students are basically turning around and interviewing the companies in terms of what they’re doing. Companies are beginning to come around to this. It’s not a massive sea change, but there’s a slow change happening.

Have you heard about the B Corporation status? It’s a community of for-profit businesses that changed their rules of incorporation, so their shareholders would realize that they are going to hold social and environmental standards as high as financial outcomes. There are 1,000 B Corps today, and it’s becoming a worldwide movement. It shows that businesses want to focus on much more than just finance.

After all, how much money do you really need to make? That’s the thing. This idea of making millions and millions — students are changing in terms of what they value. They’re not willing to compromise some things. They realize if their entire focus is on making money, and making money is wonderful, but if it’s the only thing that drives you, you’re going to have a very sad life.

I certainly see why people put finance first, but that’s not to say that you then go out and treat your workers like crap and pollute the environment. You can be finance first and still be responsible in terms of your business. They don’t even have to be equal.

But businesses do have to be mindful of their impact today, otherwise they will no longer be seen as legitimate in society. It behooves them to think about how they treat their workers and deal with their supply chain. Those things actually have a big impact on the financial bottom line of a company. Making money is great, but you have to be conscious of the conditions around how you’re making money.

I was born and raised in Latin American. When you grow up in situations where tremendous inequality is very visible, and you see the drive and the desire for opportunity of people less fortunate than you, it’s a very personal thing. You really want to create those opportunities, so my entire life has been geared towards that.

As for entrepreneurship, it’s not like you ever become an entrepreneur. You just get better and better at identifying opportunities and better at handling failures and setbacks.

For commercial entrepreneurs, their mindset is in getting it up, getting it going, being successful, and exiting (and I’m generalizing here). Social entrepreneurs have a very hard time exiting. They’re usually so committed to the issue that you will find when they exit, they don’t really exit. What I mean is, they go and form another venture that’s doing something similar.

All of the entrepreneurs I know with a strong social mission have started out with one organization and then realize, “I can’t do this with a nonprofit, so I’ll spin off a for-profit that will allow me to do X or Y,” but it’s always along the same trajectory. They are committed to the issue, whether it’s health or education or whatever. I don’t see that as much on the commercial side — those entrepreneurs are much more prone to exit. There are exceptions, but that’s a general rule.

There are so many organizations working toward the same mission, but you never see mergers in this space, which is a real disadvantage. This is especially true for nonprofits. There’s something very disturbing about the inability of social entrepreneurs to understand that it’s the issue they’re tackling, rather than the challenge of growing their organization really big.

Social change never happened because one enterprise grew as big as Coco-Cola. It happened because several organizations got together and really insisted on changing the system. If you look at the civil rights movement or the women’s rights movement, one organization didn’t get really huge, so seeking those partnerships and mergers is really the only way we’re going to be able to effect social change.

The center is more than 10 years old, and I’ve been here for five. The mission of the Said Business School is actually to tackle global challenges, and so social entrepreneurship is at the core. Most of our students would say they came to Said Business School at least in part because of the Skoll Centre.

The ideals of social entrepreneurship permeate our faculty and courses — whether it’s in building a business, social finance, or the shared economy — it really is right there in every single course.

That’s a real exception. Most of the time, the social enterprise program is like a little wart on the school. It’s a little bit like gender — oh yeah, there’s the one woman who teaches gender — but it’s not a part of the mainstream. That’s very different at Said.

That’s a really tough one. We have some 260 MBA students, and I would say 200 are completely involved with what we do. The other 60 are tangentially involved because they can’t help it in terms of courses and activities. We have a mandatory course called the Entrepreneurial Project. There are six tutors on that course, and the social entrepreneurship project is the biggest because that’s where the interest is.

We also have a big open space called the Lanchpad, where students from across Oxford come together to work in teams, share their ideas, and get their ventures going. There must be another 1,000 students from across the university that come through in a week’s time. This space has just been going on for a year, and we’re already seeing a mushrooming of activity.

We also have the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship coming up on April 15-17, which is like the Davos of social entrepreneurship. We do this in conjunction with the Skoll Foundation, and it brings some 1,000 participants from all over the world who are in social entrepreneurship themselves or part of the supportive ecosystem, such as impact investors or philanthropists or policy makers. That’s a big, huge deal.

We’re basically morphing our vision and our mission so that each business takes responsibility for its social, business, environmental, and governmental impact. Our mission is really shaping that future by inspiring and supporting entrepreneurial leaders but also discovering knowledge and supporting research in the field.

We really need to be much better at really following what our students are doing once they graduate. We know what the cohort from five years ago is doing, but beyond that, we don’t know much about the career paths that our MBAs choose. So we’re really drilling down on that.

We also need a better understanding about the career paths for social entrepreneurship. I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve had with students who say, “I’m really interested in this, what organization should I look at?” Business schools have been so oriented to careers in private equity and investment banking, that when students want to go this other route, career offices are completely stymied. They’re like, “Huh? What? We don’t know about that.”

A lot of my time is spent guiding student to those opportunities, so I think we need to do much better in looking at the ecosystem out there. We’re getting better at that, and it’s very important. That aspect is really critical for us.

The impact has been on the ecosystem. We’ve given over 55 scholarships to entrepreneurs who want to dedicate their lives to ramping up businesses that will have a positive outcome on the world, and it’s outstanding to see how many are actually doing it. That has a spillover effect into the entire MBA class and into Oxford.

The Skoll Centre is a brand, and it’s globally known among students who want to go to business school to do social entrepreneurship. It’s the No. 1 place to do this — kids come from Ivy Leagues in the U.S. specifically because of the Skoll Centre.