By Professor Shaughnessy

Another academic year comes to an end for SEI, our twelfth.  I’m especially grateful to the student leaders who make SEI’s work possible, especially Katie Powers this semester and the SEISA leadership group, teaching assistants and project managers.  SEI has always been a student-driven and student-led organization and I’m very grateful for the many students who have contributed so much to our work serving the social enterprise community here on our campus and around the world. 

Congratulations to all of the graduating class of 2018, with special thanks and best wishes to those who contributed to our social enterprise programs during their time here.

Three notes on some new areas of focus for us this past academic year.

Lessons on Social Responsibility from Janesville

In our corporate social responsibility classes (ENTR2414) and projects, we looked at the intensely debated issue of globalization and its impact on the working class in America.  Students examined the community of Janesville, Wisconsin, the home of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, as well as many companies like GM that have outsourced and offshored “blue collar” manufacturing jobs in recent years.  The book “Janesville: An American Story” revealed the pain experienced by many of these families as their well-paid manufacturing jobs went elsewhere or just went away entirely.  

The politicization of job displacement came to the forefront with the 2016 presidential campaign, in which Carrier’s Indianapolis plant closing decision became high profile news.  More recently, the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports has led many to consider the true cost of protecting American manufacturing jobs. And finally, the accelerating advance of artificial intelligence and robotics in the manufacturing sector has further intensified our focus on the future of work for the segment of our population often referred to as “blue collar” or “working class.”

We think that the future of American manufacturing lies not only in improving and expanding job training for more advanced manufacturing work, but also in finding a more thoughtful and sustainable balance between shareholder interests in cost reduction, and returning capital and the financial interests of long-service and loyal workers. While there are many reasons to be hopeful that a better balance among stakeholders can be achieved in the coming years, the recent corporate tax cut was a near-term setback in the pursuit of greater equity. Early reports suggest that thus far less than 5% of the benefits (incremental free cash flow) resulting from these corporate tax cuts was dedicated to increasing wages, while more than 80% has been directed to share buybacks and increased dividends.

With ever increasing levels of economic inequality in the US, we think that a strong case can be made for fundamental change that benefits employees while furthering the long-term interests of the business. These include: more and better education and training programs offered by employers as a free benefit through creative collaborations with educational institutions; new worker “transition” savings accounts for employees similar to 401ks that soften the blow of job loss; a return to broad-based profit sharing and share ownership programs that include workers at high risk of job displacement; the development of “cobot” training programs for advanced human-robot collaborative work;  and a fully funded federal trade adjustment assistance program.

While many executives routinely refer to their employees as the company’s “greatest assets,” in this time of rapid job displacement resulting from offshoring to robotics, it’s time to act like it.  Investing in the future of dedicated and productive employees is and will always be in the best interests of everyone, including shareholders.

Microfinance Design for Refugees

As part of our core social enterprise class (ENTR2206), students designed microfinance programs to assist specific refugee populations in transitioning to their new homes.

While many believe that the “shine” of microfinance of a decade ago (Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for Grameen Bank in 2006) has worn off, there remain many successful programs around the world.  These programs continue to deliver desperately needed financial services and access to capital to many millions of poor and low income people. Using low cost and easily accessible technologies like mobile banking and web-based remittance programs, the best “pro-poor” microfinance programs continue to achieve meaningful social impact around the world.  The best offer customized product design to meet the specific needs of their clients.

Students developed their ideas for customized microfinance programs for diverse refugee and internally displaced populations, ranging from Syrian refugees in Europe to Palestinians in Jordan, and from Rohingya in Bangladesh and Myanmar to migrants from Venezuela in Colombia.  Refugees are often the most marginalized and vulnerable among the world’s poor and low income populations. Flexible microfinance programs based on design thinking theory can lead to improved loan, savings and insurance products for these deserving people.

In an effort to put theory into practice, a group of 20 students travelled to the Dominican Republic over Spring Break to test the waters for a microfinance initiative designed to assist “stateless” people of Haitian origin living in bateyes.  While there are many challenges to delivering effective micro-credit to communities with few if any people with steady incomes, our students are examining partnership models customized to meet the needs of these deserving people. Many thanks to Eleanor Patten and Vinutha Kumar for their leadership.

3D Printing for Underserved Communities and Entrepreneurs

We hope to continue to develop 3D printing ideas to develop programs to serve the needs of micro-entrepreneurs and local students.

We were excited to learn of the advancement of 3D printing of low-cost prosthetics, especially for poor and low income people who have lost limbs (and notably hands) to trauma, accidents, birth defects and disease.  We were grateful to one of the founding leaders of eNable for his visit to campus to demonstrate the power of 3D printing to empower people who have suffered the loss of a limb with open source prosthetic designs for functional replacements.

The cost of 3D printers and materials have dropped dramatically in recent years.  While there are countless 3D printing labs in well-financed universities and businesses, the technology remains largely inaccessible in under-served communities and low-resourced micro-entrepreneurs.

Our students will continue to work on ways to make 3D printing accessible to students and micro-entrepreneurs, from Roxbury to Cape Town.  After-school programs in under-served neighborhoods and community-based technology centers in townships are on the “to do” list for SEI and our students in the coming 2018-19 academic year.  Our thanks to Kayla Vestergaard for her outstanding work in exploring this space for us.