Social Entrepreneurship: The Best Schools & Programs

In his 80th year of life, the famous English sculptor Henry Moore was asked a fascinating question by literary critic Donald Hall.

“Now that you are 80, you must know the secret of life. What is it?”

Moore paused ever so slightly, with just enough time to smile before answering.

“The secret of life,” he mused, “is to have a task, something you do your entire life, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is: It must be something you cannot possibly do.”

The sculptor’s remarks represent a nicely packaged theory of a productive life: Throw yourself into something big that you believe in. Obsessively dedicate your life’s work to it. And make damn sure it’s ambitious enough to stretch you to the limits.

It’s a philosophy that has become the motivation for an increasingly larger pool of MBAs that is helping to fuel a boom in social entrepreneurship. As greater numbers of young people dedicate themselves to social enterprise, more and more business schools are also getting into the act. Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management now dangles $80,000 in seed money to a graduating student who launches a non-profit straight out of school that can compete for the prize. Berkeley’s Haas School has partnered with McKinsey & Co. so that McKinsey consultants act as coaches to student teams who do pro-bono work for local non-profits. Harvard Business School now says that it has about 90 faculty members–more than most schools have faculty–engaged in social enterprise research, teaching and programs. Since 1993, more than 500 books and case studies have been published by Harvard professors on social enterprise. “Interest in social entrepreneurship has exploded in recent years,” says Kim Corfman, vice dean for MBA Programs at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “We are seeing it in applications, in memberships in these clubs, and in volunteer service.”

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Inspired by what Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank has achieved in micro-finance and the remarkable results of Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America in education, many young people today see the MBA as a springboard into the social sector.

What can a would-be social entrepreneur learn in a business school largely designed for the for-profit world? Greg Dees, co-founder of Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship, puts it this way: “We’re not teaching them to have the personal characteristics required to be a successful social entrepreneur any more than a music teacher teaches the personal characteristics to be a gifted musician,” he said in a recent interview. “However, good teachers do more than teach. They also coax, encourage, inspire, reward, and model the kinds of characteristics associated with success. Though we don’t teach courage, for instance, we can inspire potential social entrepreneurs to act with courage by exposing them to people like themselves who have started social ventures. A teacher can draw out the potential of a student to be a social entrepreneur and most human beings have that potential if they want to exercise it.”

Truth is, the MBA degree has become increasingly versatile and is held by many well-known social entrepreneurs. A large number of high-profile social enterprises are led and championed by MBAs, from Habitat for Humanity International, Acumen Fund, and Alzheimer’s Association to the Center for Applied Philanthropy, Children’s Cancer Research Fund, and World Vision.

Which schools have the best programs to train social capitalists? For years, Yale University’s School of Management and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business had been the two big pioneers in this field. Stanford’s launched its now well-known Public Management Program in 1971. From its start in 1976, Yale’s Management School defined its mission differently from any other business school: to educate not only business leaders but also leaders for society.

Since that time, however, many other business schools have gotten into the social enterprise game, with full-fledged programs, concentrations, social venture plan competitions, and global experiences. The Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford’s Said Business School is a solid example of a relatively new program that is attracting the best and brightest to the social sector. It was founded in 2003 with a generous grant–the largest funding ever received by a business school for an international social entrepreneurship program–from Stanford MBA Jeff Skoll, the founding president of eBay. Each year, the center hands out fully-funded MBA scholarships to five highly impressive candidates who are named Skoll Skollars. In just seven years, the program has established itself as one of the best in the world.

U.S. News & World Report annually surveys business school deans and MBA directors and asks them to identify U.S. schools with standout specialty programs. We’ve taken that ranking in non-profit management, which lists only 11 schools, as a starting point for a deep dive into exactly what each of best is offering social entrepreneurs.
  • Hi Rachel,

    I know it’s been a while since you commented on this but I am especially interested in the programs NYU offers and would love to learn more about the decision between going for an MBA or an MPA degree for social entrepreneurship. Any advice would be helpful! If you happen to see this I would love to connect- feel free to email me at lklach@bu.edu.


  • rohit

    I really like your thought process here.
    My long term goal is to have a social enterprise. But can u please explain in detail that how does mba helps in being a social entrepreneurs ??

  • Love it

    Talking Heads!

  • prospectiveSE

    It would be great to see this list updated!

  • Hank

    BYU’s Ballard Center has an AMAZING social entrepreneurship program – and BYU is cheap!

  • OhDenny

    Not sure if this person is actually an SOMer. I’ve never heard anyone say this about the program here. Take a look at the Global Social Enterprise program, our ties to the Aspen Institute, B-Lab, Agora Partners, dozens of venture philanthropy and social impact investment firms. We have a dozen SOMers in a mechanical engineering course that is studying the inventing process of micro-franchisable inventions in the developing world. We have economic development consulting firms coming to campus to recruit, considering us their core school. We have our Social Impact Lab speakers series, the loan-forgiveness and internship fund for folks who work for social enterprises or B-Corps, like Ecofiltro, (where a 2013er worked last summer), or Etsy, (where I’ll be working this summer).

    Apologies if you are an SOMer. I am just stunned as I find it hard to believe you weren’t privvy to these resources which are literally advertised all over campus. If you are here, let me know and we should go out for a drink some time.

  • currentyalie

    As a current student at Yale SOM, it needs to be said that the school is fantastic for the non-profit sector, but not as much for the social entrepreneurship or social enterprise sector. They are two very distinct industries and SOM does not come close to offering the support and resources that I have heard MIT and Stanford do. To sum up: SOM – great for non-profit work; not for social entrepreneurship.

  • Sharon, you have 3 options that I can think of:
    1) Apply to schools that provide scholarship. Ex. Skoll Skolars in the article
    2) Inquire into prospective schools about waivers. Many schools waive off tuition for students who enter the non-profit space
    3) If #1 and 2 do not work out, evaluate if an MBA is the best way forward. Would an internship or a paid stint at an existing non-profit or social venture be a better move?

    A 4th bonus option are free courses at Coursera, eDx & Udacity.

    Good luck and happy hunting.

  • First, I want to note that in your review of the social entrepreneurship curriculum at Haas, you failed to include courses like Social Finance, Social Investing and other courses offered through the school’s Center for Responsible Business that are also good preparation for social entrepreneurs. However, if you’re evaluating a school’s ability to develop “social entrepreneurs” solely by the courses grouped into a social entrepreneurship track, then you’re missing the whole notion of social entrepreneurship or how social entrepreneurs are developed. As a Haas MBA, and an early student of “social entrepreneurship” (I was in the first cohort of the REDF program Jed Emerson created that became a template for social entrepreneurship), I can tell you that the culture and MBA experience at Haas are about using one’s talents, training and education to have a meaningful impact in business and on society, and that philosophy permeates into almost every course in the MBA program—not just the one’s that are labeled “social entrepreneurship”. Even the school’s guiding principles are about being innovative and considering the greater good when making business decisions.

    When I chose to attend Haas over a decade ago, I did so because I wanted an MBA academic experience where I could learn how to apply traditional business principles to achieve social objective but not in the context of a nonprofit setting. At the time, no one was calling it social entrepreneurship, and even after I left Haas I was just calling it “the way Haas MBA’s think and approach business.”

  • Nick