Training students to become responsible leaders includes exposing them to opportunities to think creatively, innovatively and about business in different ways. Employers are increasingly looking for these skills and students themselves, many of whom aspire to become entrepreneurs, look for these opportunities.
St. Gallen University in Switzerland recently started an innovative course, in partnership with The Hub, a social innovation centre in Zurich that hosts aspiring and established social ventures. The course connects students with these ventures as a way of not just providing a learning experience for the students but also strengthening the social ventures themselves. I recently had the chance to speak with Dr. Jost Hamschmidt at St. Gallen University about this project-based learning initiative.
1. What is the Social Entrepreneurship Lab @ Hub
The Social Entrepreneurship Lab @ HUB is a service-based learning course where bachelor students are invited to apply their conventional theoretical knowledge to the different logics of social entrepreneurial ventures. They learn about different entrepreneurial motivations and business models and get a sense of how to create social impact. Students have the chance to analyze the business models and impact potential of existing social ventures and develop options on how to raise the social impact of these organizations. They develop conceptual knowledge why activities are working (or not) and if they can be replicated. We also focus on questions of collaborative entrepreneurship and strategy, e.g. what partnership strategies are needed in order to create momentum for the cause of the organization and how they can develop a robust revenue model in order to sustain their impact.
2. Why did you decide to pair up with organizations outside the classroom?
The HUB Zurich is part of a fast growing global network, a sort of social entrepreneurship incubator platform. It is a space where aspiring social entrepreneurs get access to resources, inspiration as well as a community of very diverse but like-minded people. Founded in London in 2005, the network now has spread to 25 cities, including Zurich. The partnership with entrepreneurs of the HUB in Zurich enables our students to learn about new career perspectives. They come to realize that they do not have to wait to make a difference – they can already take responsibility during their studies and help a social entrepreneurial start up to develop its business plan or to support its marketing strategy and operations. This year our teams looked at a number of social ventures including a venture promoting climate-friendly farming (Organic Standard), a microfunding project called Cromido.org, an awareness raising campaign called WeAct and the cleantech start-up Avensol which focuses on making solar power easy and affordable in Switzerland.
3. Why did you decide to do this course, what benefit does it bring students?
Service-based learning is an integrated part of the St. Gallen curriculum. We have found that active learning and really engaging the students in activities outside the classroom are far more effective than lectures and create stronger learning experiences. This opportunity also gives students the opportunity to “walk the talk”, to help them to understand and deal with the different rationales behind traditional theory and the emerging field of social impact organizations.
4. What have been some of the successes? Challenges?
The learning processes triggered by this kind of seminar are sometimes different: For some of our students, the Lab functions as a personal game changer – they realize new forms of potential careers paths and develop a new understanding of personal success. We had students who joined the social enterprises they consulted after the end of the seminar. Some of the organizations our students worked with won a number of prizes – take e.g. UrbanFarmers or Superar Suisse, where parts of our student consulting team finally joined the initiative. A challenge is enabling the students to take their role serious and become professional advisors of their projects – in this seminar they need to play with new ideas and creatively apply the concepts they learn during their studies – this is quite demanding for a bachelor student.
5. What advice do you have for other schools thinking of doing something similar? What’s next for the lab?
I would recommend engaging with sustainability start-ups, cleantech companies, social entrepreneurs and Intrapreneurs. There are many ways to do this, from inviting them to the school, organizing social impact career fairs, etc. You can also motivate students to get engaged in social business plan competitions. It is crucial to create concrete learning experiences instead of “preaching” only responsibility and ethics. And we need institutional change to develop and promote holistic learning platforms, complementing the existing forms of teaching and learning. The course has been well received and we are planning to have it run every year. We are also thinking of replicating it at other schools.