When the ROI Is Change, Not Dollars and Cents
By Lauren Golfer
Imagine a day when the bottom line doesn’t have a dollar sign. Instead it’s the number of children who are attending a newly built school or the gallons of clean water delivered to a village. It’s the measure of social impact rather than profit. This concept is the driving force behind The Wilson Center for Social Entrepreneurship. With a mission to promote social change through entrepreneurship, the Wilson Center is encouraging students to use their skills to do good and learn to see impact as a currency.
The Center was established in 2005 through a $5 million grant from Helene and Grant Wilson, entrepreneurs from the Boston area. Mrs. Wilson is an alumna who has sponsored the Helene Wilson Scholarship for minority women since 1988, and the Wilsons have been active in the Pace alumni community for several years. However, they wanted to find a different way to give to the University. Although they had a passion for social justice, they had found that the nonprofit organizations that they had worked with in the past lacked the ability to measure impact—it was not always clear how much of a difference they were making. As a private investor, Mr. Wilson had a clear idea of what he believed made a successful organization: entrepreneurial spirit, business acumen, and the drive to succeed. He wanted to find a way to make positive change that he could measure.
This is the very essence of social entrepreneurship— a concept that has gained increasing attention in recent years. In 2005, PBS ran a series called The New Heroes, which documented the stories of 14 individuals dedicated to bettering their communities. The subjects hailed from all over the world, and each had made a difference through initiatives such as sewing cooperatives, giving women in Bangladesh loans to start local businesses, and nurturing HIVpositive orphans. Each of these individuals set out with a mission and a plan to measure success.
This is the idea on which the Wilson Center for Social Entrepreneurship was built, and this idea came to fruition in 2005. With an internship program, scholarly research, a “Social Enterprise in Residence” series (currently the Greyston Foundation), and Faculty Fellows, the Center helps cultivate the best business minds for good by providing business training to budding nonprofit managers and educating developing business professionals about corporate social responsibility.
“The Wilson Center is set apart because we have a much broader definition of what is considered to be social entrepreneurship,” says Rebecca Tekula, PhD, director of the Center. “Some people say social entrepreneurs have a social mission but are using a revenue-generating activity to achieve this mission. We think broader—everything from a charity that garners donations to a for-profit business with social responsibility can be social entrepreneurship.”
Unlike other universities that house social entrepreneurship centers in the umbrella of their business schools, the Wilson Center operates independent of any one school. This allows all students access to resources such as the internship program, whether it’s an 18-year-old business student or a 50-year-old English major.
In 2009, the Wilson Center launched its funded internship program, sending eight students to top nonprofit organizations. The program aims to show students who might not otherwise work in the nonprofit, social, or public sectors that this work can be rewarding.
Both graduate and undergraduate students were matched with internships at prestigious social justice organizations in the New York Metropolitan area: Common Ground, Legal Aid Society, Project Rebirth, Robin Hood Foundation, Safe Horizons, Sanctuary for Families, and Vera Institute for Justice. Interns were both graduates and undergraduates and came from a variety of majors.
“Many of these students could not have accepted these internships without the Wilson funding,” Tekula says. “The most competitive internships don’t pay. That really great internship that looks great on your résume and gets you into grad school—most of the time it attracts the wealthier students.”
This is another reason why the Wilson Center is unique—it is opening doors to allow all students to get a taste of the nonprofit sector. The fact that some of the best internships don’t pay automatically eliminates any student who needs to work. However, the Wilson Center’s internship program makes it possible for any qualified student to pursue a nonprofit internship.
Lisha Bodden ’10 says she didn’t fully understand what a nonprofit organization was until she began her internship at Safe Horizons, which advocates for victims of crime and abuse. “It was really eye-opening and life-changing,” says Bodden, a resident adviser (RA) on campus. “I tried to make a bridge between what I do as an RA and the services they offer at Safe Horizon. [Representatives from] Safe Horizon came and spoke at RA training to address domestic violence issues.”
Bodden’s internship introduced her to working in social justice and provided a valuable networking opportunity. At the end of the summer, she was offered a fulltime job with the organization. As a fulltime student, she had to turn the position down, but says the experience she gained, particularly in using fundraising software Raiser’s Edge, helped her to get her current part-time job at Metropolitan Jewish Health System.
Likewise, Ethan Taylor ’12 interned with Sanctuary for Families, which provides a range of services to victims of domestic violence and their children, to work on program evaluation in the organization’s data management system. Taylor conducted surveys and gathered data based on clients’ experiences. He had the opportunity to use his high school Spanish lessons and survey clients on the phone, which he said could get emotional. “You felt like you knew the people after a while; you feel like you see the survey,” says Taylor. “It’s hard to go through every day and hear these heart-wrenching stories. It gets tough.”
However, Taylor had a positive experience at Sanctuary for Families, and was very impressed with how people came together to “surround a cause.” “The environment when you are working for an NGO is not people who want to get the paycheck,” says Taylor. “It’s people who want to do good work. It opened my eyes.”
The sentiment of Bodden and Taylor was echoed by the rest of the interns as well. As the summer wound down, Tekula was astounded with what students had to say. Amber Sylvester ’10 spent the summer as an investigative intern at Legal Aid Society, where she partook in client interviews and reading case files. This handson experience solidified her decision to become an attorney. “My experience as an investigator intern steered my attention toward injustices many turn away from…I learned that the law on the books and the law in action differ in an endless amount of ways. I now find myself feeling responsible for working on behalf of the indigent, acting as their voice in a system filled with socioeconomic biases.”
Tekula emphasizes that a majority of the interns applied to the program with little experience other than having waited tables or working retail jobs. The internship program at the Center gave them the chance to trade their trays and nametags for a lifechanging experience.
Ready, set, pitch!
Now in its sixth year, the Pace Pitch contest, sponsored by Helene and Grant Wilson, gives students and recent graduates three minutes to pitch their great ideas to a panel of venture capitalists. With two categories—social ventures and new business concepts—the competition has continually attracted an increasing pool of entrants from some of the best business schools in the country. However, this year, the stakes have been raised considerably, with the competition offering a $25,000 prize to winners in each of its two categories. This year’s contest took place on December 3, after press for this issue. Learn more about the winning ideas and watch a video of the best pitches at www.pace.edu/pitch.