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Social Enterprise Programs: ‘Like Little Warts On A Business School’

Skoll Center's Pamela Hartigan

Skoll Center’s Pamela Hartigan

As the director of one of the world’s premier centers for social entrepreneurship, the University of Oxford’s Skoll Centre, Pamela Hartigan has an unusual relationship with the subject. “I have come to despise the term,” she says. It emphasizes the separation of business from social responsibility, she explains. In her opinion, the two are inextricably linked.

Which is why she’s set out to systematically break down the barriers between the business school and the center. “Most of the time, the social enterprise program is like a little wart on the school. It’s a little bit like gender — oh yeah, there’s the one woman who teaches gender — but it’s not a part of the mainstream,” she says. “That’s very different at Said.”

She estimates that more than three-quarters of Oxford’s MBAs are directly involved with the center, and the remainder can’t help but be sucked into social impact discussions, which permeate the B-school’s classes. She’s also sought to build the center’s brand and reputation, so the B-school will attract the best and the brightest social entrepreneurs from all over the globe.

Hartigan says she never expected to end up at a business school. She holds a PhD in human developmental psychology from The Catholic University of America and two master’s degrees — one in education from American University and the other in international economics from Institut d’Etudes Européennes Université Libre de Bruxelles. Before joining the Skoll Centre, she was the first managing director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship.

She chalks up her interest in social entrepreneurship to her childhood in Latin America (“though I sound like an American”), which opened her eyes to gross inequality at an early age. Since then, she’s focused on building opportunities for those without any. Though it sounds like the beginnings of Peace Corps application, Hartigan’s pragmatism dispels the wide-eyed, do-gooder stereotype.

She’s a warm and engaging speaker with a wide network. Her students say that an email from Hartigan can connect them with nearly anyone in the sector. Those connections also bring in top-notch speakers and help secure jobs for the center’s graduates.

Poets&Quants caught up with Hartigan for her take on social entrepreneurship in business schools and her plans for the center. In a wide-ranging interview, she covers everything from why modern businesses can’t afford to overlook their social impact to her biggest concern for the social enterprise sector.

You must get this questions all the time, but how would you define social entrepreneurship? 

In all honesty, I’ve come to despise the term. The reason for that is it continues to dichotomize business into this is where we make our money and this is where we do good. We can’t continue down that route. We have to encourage businesses to not just focus on financial returns but to also look at how to create social value beyond just offering new jobs — the market creates jobs. It’s really about examining your whole supply chain, how you treat your workers, et cetera — that’s where the real power is going to be.

To get right to your definition, social entrepreneurship is about combining innovation, opportunity, and resourcefulness to deal with major challenges around the world.

Did you ever think you’d be involved in an MBA program? 

I would never in a million years have thought I would have been involved in an MBA program. I was not at all convinced that an MBA was of any value whatsoever to an entrepreneur. It seemed like an MBA was focused on “just do it” and not really understanding the context behind the problem. In other words, sending kids out into the world to become investment bankers but not really giving much thought to who are you and what you really want in life.

That’s totally changed, certainly at Oxford. I also teach at Columbia Business School; it’s a fantastic school, but there’s a richness to the Oxford experience that is not equaled by U.S. colleges. I think that stems from the fact that we’ve basically pioneered social innovation and entrepreneurship within the MBA. We’ve existed for over 10 years now, and I feel myself giving a lot of guidance to other MBA schools that are starting up similar programs.

What are the biggest misconceptions about entrepreneurship? 

We always think of commercial entrepreneurs as folks who want to set up businesses to make money, and that’s the furthest thing from any entrepreneur I’ve ever know, whether they’re Sergey Brin or Larry Paige. They’re really challenged by a problem. It’s not so much about the money; it’s about solving the issue.

It’s very tough to be an entrepreneur. You’ve got to be kind of crazy. We have this idea of the heropreneur, the lone entrepreneur with the vision. That’s just not reality. Entrepreneurs rarely do this alone; they need teams and cofounders desperately. All of us have entrepreneurial tendencies, but some of us don’t have the persistence and insanity to stick with something for as long as it takes to get it going. We worship these heroic figures, but I think it does a big disservice to aspiring entrepreneurs and people who think, “Oh, I’m not entrepreneur, therefore I can’t get involved.”

I always tell students if you came to business school to learn to be an entrepreneur, that was your first mistake. There is a quality about entrepreneurship that can’t be taught. You can teach the skills and tools to operate a good enterprise, but to have that kind of persistence and drive? That’s something you can’t teach.