USC Marshall: Building A Do-Gooder Brigade To Tackle Society’s Ills

Adlai Wertman of USC's Marshall School of Business. Courtesy photo

Adlai Wertman of USC’s Marshall School of Business is leading a new master’s program for social entrepreneurs. Courtesy photo

“It’s a love-fest in here,” observes Adlai Wertman from the back of a classroom filled with giddy and overly-chatty mainly 20-somethings. The remark stems from an overwhelming sense of pride, and he’s absolutely right. The students all seem to adore one another.

“This happens all the time,” continues Wertman, a professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. He sounds and looks slightly like the family patriarch watching his children and grandchildren during a holiday dinner. “The professors have to start class late because everyone is hugging each other and talking.”

It’s an early-December evening in the business school’s Popovich Hall. Professor Christine El-Haddad bounces from conversation to conversation before starting Strategic Formulation for Competitive Advantage, a strategy course she designed specifically for the recently launched Masters of Science in Social Entrepreneurship program.


Whether it’s the result of a generation increasingly comprised of do-gooders, a planet with developing social and environmental issues, some unseen Force of Empathy or something completely unrelated, social enterprise seems to be taking off—almost to a point of annoyance for some.

And institutions of higher education have certainly not escaped the tsunami of doing well by doing good. If anything, they’re the culprits of a social impact-obsessed workforce. Increasingly, B-schools like USC’s Marshall have been infiltrated by the do-gooder invasion.

It’s been more than two decades since Philippe Dongier and Katie Smith Milway founded INDEVOR, INSEAD’s social enterprise club. Around the same time John Whitehead, a former managing partner at Goldman Sachs, introduced a similar idea at Harvard Business School. Stanford’s Graduate School of Business has it’s Center for Social Innovation and a six-day residential program for executives interested in social enterprise. And of course, Oxford’s Said Business School has been pumping out socially-minded MBAs through it’s Skoll Scholarship program and Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship for some time.


But Wertman and USC Marshall believe they are filling an educational gap by offering a full-fledged master’s program—the first of its kind at a U.S. business school.  It was founded on Wertman’s belief that social problems such as homelessness, poverty or hunger, are business problems. “I knew that the world needed business students to take on social problems,” Wertman insists from his office, which resides in a converted men’s dormitory that once housed actor John Wayne during his time at USC. “I’ve been on the social side and I’ve seen the need. I knew that business schools had nothing for them—that’s not hard research to do. But I didn’t know if the students would be there. That was the big if.”

It’s not an if anymore. The students are there. The program, which graduated its first class of students last spring, has done nothing but increased in size and impact.  In March of 2014, when the program first started receiving applications for the inaugural cohort, Wertman would have been pleased with 40 applicants. They received 110. The next year they got 150 applications. And as of December, they’ve received nearly 70 applications for this application cycle, although Wertman believes the majority of applications will come in closer to the March deadline.

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