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Social Innovation At Stanford’s GSB

Neil Malhotra, co-director of Stanford's Center for Social Innovation

Neil Malhotra, co-director of Stanford’s Center for Social Innovation

If you were to name one school that is synonymous with social impact, Stanford should jump to mind. And it’s not just because the Graduate School of Business embraces a broader mission of looking at business as part of a bigger system. The school’s core philosophy, “Change Lives. Change Organizations. Change the World.,” speaks to the GSB’s approach, which extends well beyond shareholders and investors. That philosophy draws in a whole range of forces that affect the way business is done and the way organizations are run.

As the first business school to include a Certificate of Public Management, and a pioneer in the social impact space, the GSB remains at the forefront of the social entrepreneurship and social enterprise movement. The Center for Social Innovation (CSI), the GSB’s warehouse for all things related to social impact, connects with the rest of the university to offer a rich experience for students and faculty who care about social issues and management. Founded in 2000, the Center encompasses programs designed to include everyone who has an interest in almost any form of social impact, including public or private sectors or a mix of the two. The CSI’s focus is truly on solving social problems, no matter where the organization is on the profit spectrum. And the Center is certainly an attractive and popular option among top-minded business students. In the 2015 school year, almost every MBA either took a course or attended an event sponsored by the CSI.

Poets&Quants sat down with Neil Malhotra, from the CSI to learn more about the Center’s current work and future. Recently named co-director of the Center, along with Sarah Soule, Malhotra teaches Disruptive Innovation and Ethics in Management within the GSB. In the robust Q&A below, Malhotra explains why the school chose the name social innovation, why Stanford is such a hotbed for social enterprise and what he tells future social innovators.

Stanford is unique in that you don’t call it “social entrepreneurship” or “social enterprise.” Why did Stanford choose to use the term “social innovation”?

Social innovation is an extremely broad phrase that doesn’t exclude anybody, and it’s based on the idea of using organizations to solve social problems for the social good. That can include a number of actions beyond starting your own organization and being an entrepreneur. It could mean working for a non-profit, it could mean working for the government, or for a hospital, or it could mean working for a for-profit on a social problem, such as working for Google or Facebook to solve Internet accessibility.

We wanted to be an open big tent for everybody; we want to be very, very inclusive. If we called ourselves “social entrepreneurship” or “social enterprise,” what does that mean for the person who wants to manage a hospital system in a developing economy? What about the person who wants to work on the Facebook team providing Internet access in rural India? Or someone on who wants to work on the White House Social Innovation Fund, or for the federal government. These people might feel like this is not the center for them. We want to be very inclusive and realize there are many ways to social impact.

How long has the Center been around and what exactly does it do?

The Center for Social Innovation has been around since 2000, and since Sarah Soule and I took it over in September 2015, we’ve created a new strategic vision. Everything I’m talking about in this interview encompasses what we are doing now and what we are committed to doing from here on out.

The CSI has two constituencies, our faculty and our students. We help our faculty who are working on research in the social innovation space do their jobs better and improve their research output. For example, we help put them in touch with practitioners for interviews or connect them with organizations or companies to run studies–anything they need to make sure their research can flourish. That includes also being the touchpoint for a community of scholars who can learn from each other.

Our second constituency is our students, and that includes our MBA and MsX students who are interested in social innovation careers. This includes people who might just expect to dabble in social innovation or serve on a board, with plans to have a more standard private sector career, all the way to the students who are going to work for pure non-profits. The CSI offers various ways to help them; the community is fortunate enough to have a number of basic scholarship and fellowship programs supporting students financially who are entering the social innovation space. This could include, for example, people who are interested in internships with social innovation organizations. We also have a huge number of coaches to help students select the right classes from the curriculum as well as figure out what they want to do with their careers.

As for courses, we help develop a curriculum of social innovation classes. That involves making sure that those classes are staffed by the right senior faculty or by practitioners and lecturers.