Business schools and social innovation: the beginning of a love affair?


Over the past few years, many business schools have launched social innovation courses, programmes or chairs. The creators or students of such programmes have answered our questions to explain how important social innovation is and will be for students, schools and enterprises, and why. The good news is that it is attracting more and more people, and that you do not have to be an entrepreneur to innovate.


Here is an idea that we have been exploring quite frequently on down to Earth: in “social business”, there is “social”, but there is also “business”. A social business naturally has a social – and often environmental – purpose, but it is also supposed to be a real business, and therefore aims at being profitable, perennial and beneficial to the people who work for it. Knowing that several business schools have been teaching sustainable development or social entrepreneurship for a few years now, we thus wondered how exactly these schools addressed these issues: what is their approach to training students in social business? How many do they reach? How do they see the preoccupations of social business developing within business as a whole? We put a few feelers out, and this is what we learned.

How did social business emerge in business schools?

Was it the students who asked for such classes? Did the enterprises also support the idea? Bénédicte Faivre-Tavignot, Executive Director of the “Social Business / Enterprise & Poverty Chair” of HEC, explains that the creation of the Chair in 2008 resulted from various encounters and questions. In 2005, Muhammad Yunus gave a conference at HEC and, the same day, met Antoine Riboud: that is when they decided to create Grameen Danone Food. Several HEC students were then sent to help build the factory in Bangladesh, and when they returned, other students started to ask for proper training in social business. Companies also manifested their interest, saying that what Danone was doing answered some of their own challenges: they were looking for help to build new models, in social business or with a bottom-of-pyramid approach. Finally, society was also demanding that more space be allocated to social issues in business and management schools: Maria Nowak, founder of Adie, appealed for instance to HEC to take France’s poverty issues into account. The public authorities, through the voice the Housing Minister’s advisers, also supported the idea of training youth to create social integration enterprises. To answer these various demands, the Chair was created in 2008. There is also a Chair dedicated to “Social Entrepreneurship” at ESSEC which was created ten years ago, in 2002. Mélanie Verdier was a student of that Chair and is now project manager for the Global Social Venture Competition at the school’s Institute for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship (IIES). She explains that social business is, above all, a preoccupation raised by students. However, she also witnesses enterprises being more and more dynamic in the field, and looking for “intrapreneurs” capable of bringing their sensitivity to social issues to more “classic” businesses. ESCP-Europe does not have a dedicated programme for social business, which is why Maëva Tordo co-founded the NOISE (New Observatory of Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship) two years ago within the school. This former student, passionate about social innovation, explains that she gathered several others who shared the same interests, and they decided to act on the lack of training on this issue. With the NOISE, students gain exposure to the whole social innovation ecosystem, help social entrepreneurs to set up their businesses, participate in project contests, etc. The NOISE also questions teaching staff in their approach to social business issues, and has already managed to set up courses with some of them. Maëva explains that the school is now looking at all these initiatives very carefully, and she hopes that at the start of the 2013-2014 academic year social innovation will be more solidly and durably integrated in the course. N.B. We asked questions in these three schools, but there are many others that propose such formations, or where the students lead intensive reflections on the subject of social business. In France, there is aSocial Innovation Clubat la Sorbonne. Elsewhere, prestigious universities likeHarvard, Oxford, Columbia or Duke have developed specific programs. Social innovation is spreading in the education world, and more and more young actives-to-be are now trained to handle the particular issues that social businesses face.

What are the motivations of the students and enterprises for social innovation?

In the opinion of Bénédicte Faivre-Tavignot, enterprises are looking, on one hand, to find more meaning in what they do and, on the other hand, to build a strategic approach towards underprivileged markets, which offer real potential for growth. Mélanie Verdier explains that, inside ESSEC, students are more and more attracted to social business because they also wish to find more meaning, and because they find the creative, challenging and innovative aspect of it all very exciting. As for Maëva Tordo, she chose to join a business school precisely because she wanted to see how people learned there, and how this learning could be adapted to include social innovation: she believes that “changing the world is a fascinating and wonderful challenge, that has to be done with joy.”

Is “social innovation” always a synonym for “social entrepreneurship” in business schools?

Even though ESSEC’s chair is called “Social Entrepreneurship”, Mélanie Verdier insists that social innovation does not only attract entrepreneurs inside the school. She explains that many courses are available to students from other programmes, and that a handful of associations also promote the blossoming of social innovation projects led by students who did not make it into the Chair – and who will most likely join “classic” companies, taking with them their eye and interest for social issues and solutions. Bénédicte Faivre-Tavignot agrees, explaining that both entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs are trained within the HEC Chair. The school emphasises field experience and creativity, but also fosters the will to be a changemaker, within bigger companies as well:

we work both on broadening awareness on social and environmental issues, and on the concrete mechanisms of action.

Is social business still destined for a select few, or will it run through the institution as a whole?

This is one of the hopes of Maëva Tordo: to see social innovation irrigate all of ESCP’s teaching. Aside from the fact that building a Chair is not that easy, it is also the reason why she does not support the launching of a dedicated programme. She does not wish to create a “bubble”. But even though the other schools seem to have created their own social innovation “bubbles”, both Bénédicte Faivre-Tavignot and Mélanie Verdier see social and environmental challenges reach more and more students. At HEC, it is actually one of the main plans for the future: “integrate these subjects throughout HEC, by offering more courses, making more of them mandatory and inciting the students to go out in the field as much as possible. The aim is for everyone to be introduced to social innovation, and not just those who are already interested in it.” This desire is a good sign: it shows that social innovation is progressively making its way into the whole of society, with companies, schools and students placing more and more importance on it. But Mélanie Verdier believes that there is still educational work to be done on the issue: “people need to understand that launching a social business does not mean choosing a life of sacrifice. You can make a living out of it, and work there for a long time. It is not a student or young worker thing.” Let’s bet that the current initiatives led by business schools will spread that message more and more.

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    Business school is something that is necessary and at the moment, I will fully support it.