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MBA Students Get a Crash Course in Social Entrepreneurship

Friday, Apr. 8, 2011
Cassandra Thomassin
Cassandra Thomassin

Earlier this year, Cassandra Thomassin advised a solar thermal energy conversion startup company in India how to narrow its target market, and how to impress investors with a past success to win funding for a future product.

She also helped an entrepreneur in Ohio realize that his volunteer-matchup business model could be expanded far beyond his initial projections.

Oh, did we mention that Thomassin is a 27-year old MBA student at Santa Clara University?

Thomassin is one of about a dozen MBA candidates who each have been mentoring a dozen "social entrepreneurs" from some of the most remote regions of the world. Social entrepreneurs are those trying to meet a dire social need with innovations in technology or business models, many of them for profit.

This mentoring - which is largely done online - is part of Santa Clara’s prestigious Global Social Benefit Incubator program (GSBI), a competitive program of the Center for Science, Technology, and Society that invites hundreds of social entrepreneurs from around the world to apply for one of 20 spots. Winners get eight months of training and mentoring by volunteer Silicon Valley executives and SCU faculty, including an intensive two-week in-residence program over the summer.

This year's GSBI class will be announced soon, and will be coming to campus August 7-19. They will present a summary of their newly honed business plans at an August 18 event.

Even those who don’t get into GSBI get rigorous mentoring by students like Thomassin.

The student mentors have all recently taken a social entrepreneurship course taught by SCU business professor Eric Carlson. In class, he teaches the students the elements of the social-entrepreneur value proposition, market segmentation, and business model --  then sends them off to share what they’ve just learned with the entrepreneurs applying through Social Edge (a Skoll site) to get into GSBI.

Through this process, Carlson and his students have mentored hundreds of entrepreneurs over the years.

The students, who recently finished their mentoring for the 2011 GSBI program,  say it’s an amazing experience they wouldn’t get otherwise. They say it has put their business and startup learning curve on rapid fast forward.

“Pretty much everything I’ve learned in my social entrepreneurship class at SCU, I’m using now,” said Thomassin, who this summer will also help mentor some of the 20 businesses that were recently awarded  GSBI scholarships. 

“GSBI is a world-class program that makes a tremendous difference in the lives and organizations of the entrepreneurs who participate, and to the students who take my MBA class,” says Carlson. "It’s exciting to be part of this movement.”

He adds that half the applicants who don't get accepted nevertheless thank GSBI mentors for the valuable experience of applying,  because of the feedback they receive in the process.

Sometimes the students help prepare the entrepreneurs to shift to a for-profit business model, rather than relying on grants.

“A lot of entrepreneurs in this social-change environment, they are very passionate and can tug at your heartstrings, but when it comes to the bottom line you want something more concrete,” said Amy Clogher, another student working on GSBI mentoring. 

“We like their causes and we want them to succeed, but really, we’re looking at this like a business,” agreed Beena Sadasivan, another MBA student.

The work is giving students immense confidence. Thomassin said when she first started advising GSBI applicants, she didn’t think she had anything to offer. But this year, she plans to work alongside the 20 entrepreneurs and share her training in things like formulating a value proposition, writing a compelling business plan, and defining a target market segment.

“More and more companies that come through GSBI are becoming big names in social entrepreneurship,” she said. “It’s exciting to be at the center of that change.”

April 8, 2011
 

Tags: CSTS, GSBI

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