Innovation in Social Entrepreneurship Courses – 10 questions with Linda Sama from St. John’s University (part 1)

A few weeks ago, we looked at the work being done by the PRME Working Group on Poverty (part 1 and part 2). One of the members of the Working Group, Linda Sama from St. John’s University in the United States, recently won the 2012 Innovation in Entrepreneurship Pedagogy Award from the Academy of Management Entrepreneurship Division. The award is given in recognition of the development and implementation of a social entrepreneurship course. The course she developed, called GLOBE, engages students in managing a global microloan business.

I recently had the chance to speak with Linda about her innovative course and how it came about.

1. What is Globe?

GLOBE is an undergraduate 3-credit course in social entrepreneurship housed in the Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University and designed to provide students with the opportunity to manage an entrepreneurial global microloan business. This social business offers microloans, sourced through donations, to entrepreneurs in developing countries, providing them with a “dignified route out of poverty” in the words of microfinance expert and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Dr. Muhammad Yunus.

Working with field partners – the Vincentian Daughters of Charity – students organized into task teams identify loan candidates, vet loan applications, market and promote the program, create web-based documentation and social media sites, track loans, assess portfolio risk, and recommend new strategies to a governing Board of Directors. GLOBE has a strong web-presence and students have leveraged social media to advance the program’s goals, visibility and reach. The course runs every semester and has graduated 148 GLOBE student managers as of Spring 2012. GLOBE managers are mostly business students; however students from other disciplines are invited to apply. While learning how to be social entrepreneurs, the students assist entrepreneurial talent around the globe, offering business plan advice and financial literacy training. Students, in describing their mission as part of GLOBE, say: “We are committed to building a global community – starting here at St. John’s – that is going to contribute to the goal of eradicating poverty within our lifetime.”

2. Why did you decide to develop this program?

I conceived the idea of GLOBE in the fall of 2007 and, with the help of a Steering Committee, launched the inaugural course in Spring 2009. Inspired by Kiva’s web-based microlending program, as well as the work of Dr. Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, I sought to amplify my research and teaching portfolio, which had been fully immersed in the literature on business ethics, sustainability and corporate social responsibility, with emerging work in the microfinance industry aimed at alleviating poverty. I wanted to find a way to leverage my research for meaningful learning and to engage students in a hands-on academic experience that would challenge some of the traditional views of the interface between business and society. In developing a social business, students apply their myriad talents to running a small enterprise with goals that are not predominantly focused on profits – a very new concept for many of our business students. I also sought to create a course that is truly interdisciplinary so that students might learn skills from each other.

3. What are some of the projects that students have done – some of your favourites?

Students are constantly coming up with new and exciting ideas for the program, and they often push us to reconsider the way we do things in an effort to improve upon the existing foundation of GLOBE. They have done excellent work in adjusting the program to better meet borrowers’ needs and in developing new ways to communicate and fundraise. Some highlights include the newly implemented interest rate calculation based on a declining balance method that the students developed. It took two semesters of students working on this to build a persuasive case for our Steering Committee to approve the change, which will benefit borrowers since, as a result of this new calculation, they will pay less interest over the term of the loan. Also, last semester, the students connected us to the Kenya – Daughters of Charity and their community via SKYPE. It was our first “live” connection with the field for the entire class and the students were completely responsible for making it happen

4. What have been some of the challenges and how have you overcome these?

Challenges have been many and each serves as a “teaching moment”. The challenges range from working within a set University structure to innovating a new program to working remotely with our borrowers and Daughters in the field so that loans are distributed appropriately, repayments are made to allow for follow-on loans, and entrepreneurial activities are supported through student efforts. We have overcome seeming structural barriers at the University by persevering when we receive an answer of “no” to a request; finding people on campus who are interested in what we are doing and eager to help – and then nurturing those relationships; and accommodating our program to meet the needs of the University, which are also many times very legitimate and sensible.

In terms of the field, we have had some heartbreaking stories of default – such as the woman in Kenya who unbeknownst to us or the Daughter there suffers from alcoholism. After she took out her loan and made a few payments, she fell back into drinking and has been unable to keep up her business. This has taught us the importance of understanding the challenges our potential borrowers may face physically and mentally, as well as financially, before burdening them with a loan. It also demonstrates the value of peripheral social programs such as sobriety programs to help borrowers be successful.

Part 2 will be posted on November 8, 2012


2 thoughts on “Innovation in Social Entrepreneurship Courses – 10 questions with Linda Sama from St. John’s University (part 1)

  1. This course sounds wonderful! While Gustavson School of Business has faculty who study poverty and microfinance, and address it in several courses – stimulating lots of discussion! – it seems that GLOBE connects keen students directly with the issues, lets them act, and then gives them academic credit, which is fantastic.
    This fall, some Gustavson undergrads have taken the matter into their own hands and started a microfinance club, which I hope will do many of the things GLOBE is doing. I’m looking forward to reading the next installment of your story!

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