Introduction by Professor Sophie Bacq
On November 2 and 3, Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business hosted
The 14th Annual Social Entrepreneurship Conference in partnership with USC Marshall School of
Business. During two days, 90 researchers from 16 countries around the world presented and
discussed their latest research on a variety of topics that included social entrepreneurship and
development, outcomes and measurement, ecosystems and social entrepreneurship across
contexts, to name a few.
Through thought-provoking paper sessions, high-quality discussions, and outstanding keynote
speeches by Dr. Tyler Wry, Dr. Jeffrey Robinson, Dr. Julie Battilana, Dr. Andrew Charman and
Dr. Leif Petersen, researchers from many different disciplines had the opportunity to advance
research and thinking on social entrepreneurship. Innovations to this year’s conference included an impact investing panel led by Dr. Sara Minard, and a symposium featuring five papers forthcoming in a special issue of the Journal of Business Venturing, led by Dr. Oana Branzei.
We also felt a growing and strengthening sense of community among social entrepreneurship
scholars, including many “local” peers from Boston University, Harvard University, U Mass. Our
Best Paper Award reception at the Alumni Center was a festive celebration. In addition, The 14 th
Annual Social Entrepreneurship Conference also was a unique opportunity for students to
interact with faculty and explore the research dimension of a phenomenon that they usually
study in the classroom or in the field. In total, 20 student ambassadors studying social
entrepreneurship and social enterprise at Northeastern contributed greatly to the conference,
and more than 50 students attended at least one session. One of them, Alex Castillo, shares
with you his take aways from the conference:
by Alex Castillo
On Friday, November 3rd , I attended the keynote presentation given by Dr. Julie Battilana at the 14th Annual Social Entrepreneurship Conference. Dr. Battilana is a professor of Business Administration and Social Innovation at Harvard, and this portion of her research focuses on the challenges and opportunities faced by organizations pursuing both social and commercial goals. In her hour long talk and ensuing question and answer session, Dr. Battilana presented some of the findings that she concluded from her research on these hybrid organizations. She started by talking about social entrepreneurship at a high level, and alluded to “a broader movement to change capitalism.” This idea of changing capitalism and changing the foundational systems in the US and abroad has greatly intrigued me this year as I take my first two entrepreneurship courses – 2206 (Global Social Enterprise) and 2414 (Social Responsibility of Business in an Age of Inequality). Both courses focus heavily on social responsibility and impact of corporations, so I was happy that Dr. Battilana’s talk was extremely relevant and digestible for me. At the same time, I was glad that she took a different angle than I have been exposed to this year by looking at the management and operations of hybrid organizations that were starting out with the intention of pursuing both social and commercial goals.
Dr. Battilana provided some background of the history of social entrepreneurship, mentioning how exciting a time it is to be studying the emerging field as there is so much more to observe and learn. On the other hand, she brought up an idea that I hadn’t thought about before, or at least in a way that resonated with me – that social entrepreneurship has been around nearly as long as any business has been around. Businesses have always had to deal with the social impact that their operations and activity caused, the major difference now is that many more citizens expect businesses to more actively seek to control their negative impacts and expand their positive one.
One of the biggest challenges that Dr. Battilana mentioned is faced by socially-focused and/or hybrid organizations is the fact that the systems currently in place are organized around traditionally capitalist institutions. Society is simply not set up to easily allow corporations to pursue multiple bottom lines with ease. After all, the modern understanding of business as most of the world knows it has little to do with social impact. In most business schools, the entire discipline focuses solely on one dimension – how to maximize profit. For this reason, the foundational knowledge held by many business men and women is rooted in profit maximization. As social mission becomes increasingly important across nearly all industries, I believe business programs will adapt and better serve their students.
In her experience observing the process of hybrid organizing, Dr. Battilana was able to recognize that many operations ran into conflict when it came to pointing every member of the organization toward a common goal (or goals). Whether an organization begins its life as a hybrid or decides to expand its non-profit into the commercial space or vice-versa, there are difficulties that arise when employees with traditionally profit-driven mindsets try to work together with those having traditionally social impact driven mindsets.
Although companies have been managing their social impact to some extent for centuries, Dr. Battilana stated that in her experience, most do not formally address what their social goals are or should be. This is changing. The world is demanding that companies take responsibility for both their intentional and unintentional impact. As companies expand their operations, more and more employees with diverse background experience are required to work side by side. While I certainly see this as a positive change where companies will benefit from differing points of view and will be less prone to group-think permeating the organization, there is no doubt that conflicts will arise amongst workers. Dr. Battilana mentioned the importance of fostering an organizational culture that explicitly pursues both social and commercial goals and getting employees to buy in. While it is impossible to completely have control in determining the company culture, much of it will have to do with the people the company chooses to hire. There are pros and cons to hiring workers with experience versus hiring young and likely more “moldable” workers. While experience is a great benefit to an organization, most individuals will be forced to unlearn habits and keep an open mind when introduced to new processes, practices, and standards. At the same time, maintaining a diversity of ideas and viewpoints is of great importance, so prior experience is potentially very useful.
The biggest takeaway that I left the address with was the importance of maintaining sight of the big picture. Dr. Battilana cited mission drift as one of the biggest problems that hybrid organizations face, as pressures to maintain financially sustainable sometimes serve to trump the social mission. As we learned in class, one of the defining characteristics of social entrepreneurship is the creative, opportunistic, and relentless pursuit of a social mission, so if companies truly want to succeed in balancing commercial and social goals, they must be agile and innovative and persuade their employees to buy-in to the cause.