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

Photo courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business

Students in Marshall’s specialized master’s program for social entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy of USC Marshall School of Business

MASSIVE EARLY INTEREST

“Marshall sat me down one day with a group of other specialized masters programs and said ‘You need to have a minimum of 25 students to open,’” Wertman remembers. “And then they turned to me and said, ‘Well, Adlai, you can have 15. Because we know what you do is important to the school and it’s part of our philosophy. But we don’t really expect people to pay to go to school for this, Adlai, so you can do 15, because it’s important to Marshall.’ And I got really angry at the meeting and one of the other people said, ‘Why don’t you read this as they’re being supportive as opposed to them thinking you’re going to fail.’”

Wertman, who reads every application and interviews every applicant, and his team were inundated with applications. Out of the 51 students they accepted, 48 enrolled that year. And two deferred. The next year they enrolled 49. And the class profile Wertman and his team have put together is exactly what you’d expect. Nonprofits and business were the two highest industries of experience made up by the entering 2015 cohort. The median age is 27 and the majority majored in business, social sciences or humanities. They are also very international, with more than a quarter being from outside the United States.

DIVERSE BACKGROUNDS AND DIVERSE SOCIAL ISSUES BEING SOLVED

Back in the Popovich Hall classroom, El-Haddad settles the students. It’s the course’s finale and teams are presenting their business plans. One-by-one, teams of students walk to the front of the room and present a social challenge first and how a sustainable business model might solve it. There’s an Angolan trash collecting service that converts trash into polyester for clothing manufacturers. There’s a hot water heating system aimed towards conserving water. There’s even an app looking at how to connect the elderly with one another to relieve senior citizen isolation.

Wertman sits in the back, often muttering words of awe at the ingenuity and ideas being presented. He’s also the first to ask the hard questions, although it doesn’t take much emotional intelligence to see the tough queries come from a place of genuine interest in each student and idea.

“These students are leaving my class with a business plan they want to implement,” El-Haddad says, noting each of the five teams had at least one member who planned on starting the venture upon graduation. “It’s not just a project at the end of the course that they put on a shelf. It’s something they actually plan to implement. The point of this course is to enable students to form high performing and high impact social enterprises.”

NOT AN MBA-LITE PROGRAM FOR THE SOCIALLY-MINDED

And this is no MBA-lite. The course floats between lectures, case study discussions and exercises. El-Haddad teaches it like a strategy capstone course in the MBA program. “Social enterprises face a lot of competition,” she explains. “They compete for financial resources like grants and donations. They compete for the best board members, the best staff and best volunteers. And they compete for the best programs to serve their clients. They want the best programs for the poor or the hungry.”

Indeed, the students might love one another, just as Wertman pointe out. But El-Haddad is training them like competitive business people vying for limited resources. “In every industry you have companies that are leading, some that are in the middle and some that are trailing,” she insists. “And it’s often the strategy used at the top by CEOs that change where the organizations are.”

El-Haddad says some of the theories and frameworks she teaches are exactly the same in MBA courses. Others are altered slightly for a social enterprise focus. An example El-Haddad gives is the Five Forces model of strategy created by Harvard Business School superstar Michael Porter. “It talks about customers and suppliers but it doesn’t include the users,” she explains, noting there have been changes and adaptions to the framework but not yet for social enterprises. “Sometimes the people funding the enterprise are different from the users. The poor and the sick are not included in Porter’s Five Forces model.”

And that’s where El-Haddad sees the most room for research and growth in the area. “If you look at Harvard or other business schools, it’s (social enterprise) getting a lot of interest, but there is a need for much more research. Some of the tools can be better adapted to the social sector.”