Francisco Noguera

Student Conferences and Engagement Opportunities: Reinventing Business Education?

Rob said it in one of his recent posts: this fall is shaping up to be a busy one, with plenty of conferences and engagement opportunities for those interested in the social enterprise/ base of the pyramid space. This is true especially for students in the US; October and November will see several venues that add to the discussions that took place as recently as last week over at Michigan’s Ross School and MIT’s Legatum Center.

The east coast will be particularly busy. Today, Columbia Business School will host its annual Social Enterprise Conference, with just a a bit over a month to go before Cornell dresses up to host the 2009 Net Impact North America Conference. Both will provide great opportunities to network with a large group of people interested in this space. Moreover, if you’re in your first year at school, in the process of applying for entry in the coming years or just plain curious about what this whole buzz is about, there may not be a better way to start building a network than taking a couple of days to attend the Net Impact Conference. It was an amazing experience to be there last year, and I’ve had the pleasure of staying in touch and seeing many of the folks I met there last year. This year’s lineup promises to offer interesting discussions on the perspectives for the sector and, most importantly, opportunities for students to engage in action after graduation.

That said, I feel the need to pose a couple of questions about the role conferences such as these should play. Although I absolutely recognize their role in stirring ideas and facilitating networking/ engaging among like-minded people, I feel that student-led conferences (and all social enterprise conferences for that matter) still fall short in bridging a critical gap: the one between the reality of conference organizers/ volunteers/ attendees (students, for the most part) and that of the individuals highlighted at panels and keynote sessions. Let’s say you get a chance to listen to Willy Foote talk about Root Capital… I’ll bet you can’t help feeling the itch following a similar path and creating a venture of your own or finding a way to get to do this kind of work in the field in a sustainable manner. Alternatively, you may well run into a panel where someone like Nachiket Mor participates; again, again, you will be inevitably compelled and wonder how you could build a successful career within a large organization without losing focus of what matters most to you and your passion for this.

The truth is that this industry is still in its very early stages, which makes the odds of building a BoP-oriented career within a large organization (like Mr. Mor in the example above or even Justin DeKoszmovszky at SC Johnson) very rare. I’ve talked about this with many people lately and they all coincide in thinking that, as the sector matures, work opportunities will be increasingly driven by new ventures created by entrepreneurs that share an idea and vision of the world. The bulk of BoP jobs will likely not come from large corporations building BoP strategies.

This is the gap I referred to above: Conferences (and academic programs, for that matter) still follow a format that was designed for a world where work opportunities were offered almost exclusively by the McKinseys, the Goldmans and the GEs. If you agree with this, wouldn’t you also agree that more time in these conferences should be devoted to discussions around the dos and dont’s of venture creation? I would argue that a venue like Net Impact’s should have a whole track titled “Reimagining business education”, where professionals (B-school alumni and non-), faculty and current students come together to identify those areas that currently do not receive the attention they deserve in MBA curricula. Business education (you can replace “business” with “graduate” if you wish…) will not go away for a while at least. It does have to evolve, however, if it is to keep up with growing demand from prospective students who are in the business of shaping the world, not fitting into it as it is.

Now let me go back to the bright side and note that this is already starting to happen in many instances, driven by innovations taking place mainly outside of the classroom. One of the organizations leading the charge is the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA). NCIIA does really interesting work concerned with innovations in curricula, which will hopefully translate into more student-driven enterprise and innovation. Its programs are designed to accelerate the growth of student-run ventures and I can attest to the team’s efforts in helping them become sustainable and viable alternatives for students after graduation.

I´ve followed two of NCIIA’s programs with special attention: the Sustainable Vision Grants and Venture Well. As its name suggests, Sustainable Vision grants fund educational programs where breakthrough technologies are created and commercialized for the benefit of people living in poverty in the US and abroad. Grants of up to $50,000 are available for faculty at US universities. You can get a sense of the types of projects that are eligible by reading more about previous grantees here. On the other hand, Venture Well invests in early stage ventures run by students or recent graduates, which makes it complementary to SV grants. Applications to the next round of Sustainable Vision Grants closes next Friday so if you or someone you know are eligible please encourage them to put in an application!

I’d be thrilled to see these innovations (and others that fall along the same lines like the Fast Forward Fund) being discussed alongside students, academics and professionals in events like those of Net Impact and Coulmbia Business School. We’ll see… For now, I’ll be around today at the Social Enterprise Conference at Columbia and also in Ithaca for Net Impact. If you’re planning to be there please reach out! I’d love to continue this discussion with some of you out there over a cup of coffee.