Center for Social Entrepreneurship

at Middlebury

Learning How To Be a Social Entrepreneur

As I was sitting in the audience in Axinn last week listening to the CSE grant recipients give their presentations on their social enterprises, I was, in short, totally blown away.

During the talks, I was completely absorbed in listening to the nine sophomores discuss the challenges they had to overcome while building solutions to systemic social problems all over the world.

But after leaving Axinn later that afternoon, I started reflecting on my own experience with social entrepreneurship — and couldn’t help comparing myself to these students three years my junior. Cue the pangs of inadequacy. What have I been DOING with my life??

I first was introduced to the CSE when I took Social Entrepreneurship in the Liberal Arts with Professor Isham during J-term in 2012. We spent the month pulling apart social entrepreneurship as a discipline, mulling over its role at a liberal arts institution and in our own lives. Professor Isham pushed us to develop a personal narrative and figure out where social entrepreneurship fit into our own lives. After learning about the work of Jacqueline Novogratz, Muhammad Yunus and Bill Drayton, I was, quite simply, totally psyched about social entrepreneurship.

A year later, I signed up for MiddCORE. MiddCORE’s challenge of formulating an idea, further developing it through conversations with mentors, and convincingly articulating it in a pitch to a crowded room was an incredibly valuable process, and left me with a renewed belief in the potential and the importance of entrepreneurship.  I was struck by the wide range of ideas presented by my classmates; their ideas were completely innovative and exciting, and I was so impressed by the depth of creativity surrounding me.

My excitement around entrepreneurship and innovation led me to MassChallenge this summer. Based out of Boston, MassChallenge is the world’s largest startup accelerator and competition, and the first to support early stage companies with no strings attached. Over a 4-month period, MassChallenge accelerates 128 early-stage companies by connecting them with resources and investors that will help them to grow their ideas into viable and successful companies. And if I don’t already sound like a walking advertisement for MassChallenge, let me add: working there was the coolest summer internship of all time.

There was so much innovation and creativity going on in our offices that the place felt like it was literally humming with energy and activity. I went to pitch competitions and startup showcases. I met serial entrepreneurs who had started their own company several times over, and people who had just quit their jobs because they believed in their own idea. I talked with investors and venture capitalists and all kinds of industry experts who have heard enough pitches to recognize when a good idea is more than just a good idea.

All three of these experiences — my social entrepreneurship course, MiddCORE, and my internship at MassChallenge — shaped me as a student and as a person. I learned about the root causes of some of the systemic problems across the globe; I learned how enterprise and economics can be used to address social problems; I learned what a good idea looks like, how to pitch it effectively to a crowd, and what it takes to implement it.

In response to my earlier question (What have  I been DOING with my life??): I’ve been learning.

It’s also worth noting at this point that I ended up in each of those three experiences despite a remarkable lack of planning on my part. I took Social Entrepreneurship because I wanted to drop the class I initially registered for, and my roommates were already in the class; I signed up for MiddCORE on something of a whim, and I heard about MassChallenge through a good friend and former fellow Campus editor who graduated from Midd in 2012.  That is to say: Each of these experiences was totally life changing, and I stumbled into each pretty much by accident. But it’s not a coincidence that Middlebury is the common denominator.

My point is that it’s ok if you haven’t changed the world yet. But you’re at a place that equips you to do some pretty big things, and you can do a lot with the things you’re learning. Middlebury is like an incubator for smart people who care about making a difference in the world, so take advantage of all that we are offered here. If you can’t be a social entrepreneur, be a student of social entrepreneurship: Learn about the problems, and learn how to think about the solutions. Take the classes and pursue the internships that will give you the skills to one day tackle the issues you are passionate about.

Social entrepreneurs are individuals with innovative solutions to society’s most pressing social problems. But if you don’t have the solutions yet, at least come learn about the problems. Go to the Friday Speaker Series. Ask questions. Connect with others. Stay curious, engage your empathy, surround yourself with interesting people, and what feels like serendipity going forward might eventually look like an impressively well-thought-out 5-year plan in retrospect.

By Kelsey Collins ‘13.5


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