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Social Entrepreneurship Research in Undergraduate Education

By Dr. Sophie Bacq

On Friday February 21, I had the chance to take part in the Ashoka U Exchange hosted by Brown University. Ashoka U catalyzes social innovation in higher education through a global network of entrepreneurial students, faculty and community leaders. The Ashoka U Exchange is their annual, global convening for social entrepreneurship education, bringing together 650 individuals representing over 150 institutions from 40 countries. At the Exchange, entrepreneurial students, faculty, administrators and community members come together to share action-oriented best practices on how to foster a campus-wide culture of social innovation. 

In line with Northeastern and SEI’s deep involvement in and commitment to social entrepreneurship education, I had the opportunity to serve as a panelist in a session focused on “Social Innovation: Research Methodologies & Lessons Learned for a New Field”. During 100 minutes, Mary Conway Dato-On (Rollins College), Brett Smith (Miami University Ohio) and I had the chance to share our thoughts and best practices for data collection and research related to social entrepreneurship. Sarah Woodside (Boston College) wonderfully organized and moderated the panel discussion.

Brett Smith started the conversation by presenting the work of the Base-of-the-Pyramid Action Research Program in which he has been involved in Guatemala and Sri Lanka, partnering closely with social enterprises like Community Enterprises Solutions and Room to Read (check out: http://www.sirlab.org/). Brett reflected on what made these research projects successful from the perspective of the local communities but also from the academic perspective as their research was led to a publication in the Academy of Management Journal. Mary followed on with the story of her long-term study of social entrepreneurs and commercial entrepreneurs in Mexico. Mary stressed the importance of partnering with local institutions, like SEI does when students go on dialogue every summer, and reflected on funding options available for these types of research endeavors, such as the Fulbright Scholar Program.

Finally, I discussed the importance of having a strong theoretical framework to enlighten the research we conduct on social enterprises. During my presentation and responses to questions from the audience, I stressed that theories are important to better understand many different aspects of a phenomenon, to predict outcomes of interest, to describe and explain a process or sequence of events, and to organize the complexity of the empirical world (Colquitt & Zapata-Phelan, 2007). Second, whereas the many different expressions of social enterprises might lead to the building of new theories, social entrepreneurship researchers can start by borrowing and testing theories from many disciplines (e.g., sociology, anthropology, accounting). Third, one can decide which theory(ies) to borrow by focusing on a specific issue that has been researched in other contexts. For instance, we drew on the family business literature to identify meaningful theoretical lenses to address this issue of competing demands from the social and the business spheres of a social enterprise (Bacq & Lumpkin). By doing so, scholars can hope to use the findings of their social entrepreneurship research to inform and contribute back to existing theories.

This session fully devoted to research was a welcome addition to this year’s Exchange program. Indeed, our research findings fuel the content of our classes. It is thus worth reflecting on why and how we conduct research on this complex and multifaceted phenomenon that social entrepreneurship is. Overall this first-time panel was a success: we had great attendance, engagement, and follow up to a research subject at a primarily teaching conference.

I am already looking forward to the next opportunities on the agenda to share ideas on the future of social entrepreneurship research. One of them is the Annual Social Entrepreneurship Conference, which will be hosted for the first time by Northeastern D’Amore-McKim School of Business, in partnership with NYU-Stern, on November 5–7, 2014. Save the date! More information will follow. 

Bacq, S. & Lumpkin G.T. Can Social Entrepreneurship Researchers Learn from Family Business Scholarship? A Theory-Based Future Research Agenda. Working paper.

Colquitt, J. & Zapata-Phelan. 2007. Trends in theory building and theory testing: A five-decade study of the Academy of Management Journal. Academy of Management Journal, 50(6): 1281–1303.