Guest Articles

March 14

Amy Gillett

Preparing Students to Launch: What Needs to Happen on the Ground to Get Social Enterprises Off the Ground?

Social entrepreneurship is a relatively new field that’s attracting a new type of business leader. Educational approaches to it need to be just as nimble and inventive. How can we nurture the next generation of social entrepreneurs?

We at the William Davidson Institute create entrepreneurship curricula and train entrepreneurs around the globe through our in-house Entrepreneurship Development Center. We recently piloted a program to encourage students to develop social enterprises. M²GATE linked university students in the USA with students in four countries of the Middle East North Africa region (MENA) to work together in teams to identify a social problem in MENA and design and pitch a solution. In this “virtual exchange,” run under a grant from the Stevens Initiative, students collaborated with each other online over eight weeks. (Note: WDI is the parent organization of NextBillion.)

Through M²GATE, 402 participants designed 73 new social enterprises. In their video pitches, the participants showcased their solutions to thorny challenges in areas such as health care, the environment and education. Their innovative solutions demonstrated that they had learned the basics of entrepreneurship and business model development.

We believe this pilot program can serve as a model for the design of social entrepreneurship — as well as general entrepreneurship — programs. Here are five key elements that drove the success of M²GATE.

A practical curriculum

We used “backward design” to develop the curriculum. We started by identifying with the learning goals and desired results: What should the students be able to do as a result of the program? The answer was being able to work in a cross-cultural team to identify a societal problem, design a sustainable business around it and pitch that business in the form of a video. From there, we asked what knowledge and skills the participants would need to do that. The curricular components quickly fell into place: they would need to understand the entrepreneurial process and business models, how to work in a virtual team and how to create a video pitch. The curriculum’s e-learning modules were served up as “just-in-time learning” — they were made available to the students online just as they were needed to take the next step in creating their social enterprise.

A design for agency

“Student agency” is a hot topic these days, as educators recognize that if school is to prepare students for the world of work, it should require them to take a more active role in their entire learning journey. When students are afforded agency, they direct their own learning process: setting goals for a project, acting on those goals, and reflecting on them and deriving meaning from them. We designed M²GATE to maximize agency at every step. At the outset, we asked students to identify a societal issue that they wanted to tackle. Students were free to choose whatever challenge they wanted. They needed to collaborate with their teammates and select something that was meaningful to them both individually and as a group. They were then asked to take action on this challenge. We gave them some instruction and some useful frameworks for doing this, but they were given plenty of freedom. During their journey, we asked them to reflect on what was going well and what challenges they were facing. We created a program blog so they could share such reflections. And we ended the program with a debrief to help students engage and solidify their learning.

At the end of the program, students reported significant increases in their ability to take action on social issues. And even months after the program, many alumni described increased self-confidence as one of the program’s legacies in their lives (on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being “significantly increased,” alumni rated the program an average of 4.24 in change of confidence). They realized they had the ability to define and achieve their goals. Several participants even started referring to themselves as “changemakers.” As a participant from Morocco said, “Before being participants, we are citizens, we bear a share in worrying about our nation’s future, and before that, our social issues. For this, we need to make a change, or at least try to do so.”

A ready-made team

The M²GATE program management team grouped students into six-person teams: four students from one country of the MENA region plus two students from Michigan. We matched students by their social interests (e.g., health care). We also strove for diverse disciplinary backgrounds on each team. Two weeks before the start of the program, we notified students of their team assignments. To help them get to know each other, we gave them a couple of fun exercises, including sharing a virtual meal. Meeting via video chat, students presented some of their favorite foods and discussed what they were eating. By the kick-off session, team members had already gotten to know each other and could turn their attention to finding a problem they all wanted to solve.

Building a strong interpersonal foundation enables a team to tackle its work most effectively (as Google also found). Often, the path of the entrepreneur can be lonely and marked by existential questions such as What am I doing? and Is this ever going to find a market? But in M²GATE, everyone operated within a team, a ready-made cadre to share ideas and insights as well as doubts and fears.

A fusion of perspectives

The structure of blending student teams across cultures proved very effective. The MENA students were able to share deep insights into their local markets with the Michigan students and explore what problems were worth addressing. For the Michigan students, these conversations offered a unique portal into a very different world. U-M student Ryan Berg said, “I didn’t know that child labor was such a huge problem in Egypt. This was an eye-opening experience.” And Kholoud Baghouri of Tunisia said, “I am more open than ever to collaborate with people who are different than me. This program has taught me that it’s okay to be different and that difference is what creates magic!”

As their first assignment, the teams created a video exploring the issue they were taking on, some of which included interviews with locals. This allowed the Michigan students to gain an intimate understanding of issues from their teammates’ perspectives. The Michigan students were then able to offer their counterparts another perspective on the issue. This led to interesting insights that germinated new ideas. For example, a Tunisia-Michigan team chose to tackle the problem of high unemployment among recent college graduates in Tunisia. The Michigan team members highlighted that in the United States, websites like Handshake and LinkedIn help students land internships and jobs while still in college. This discussion led the team to design a job placement site customized for the Tunisian workforce.

A community of practice

M²GATE created a robust community of aspiring social entrepreneurs. The program’s learning management system, which we custom developed, allowed participants to review and comment on each other’s video assignments. For each of the three cohorts, we created a Facebook group. This proved to be a popular way for participants to share ideas and inspiration. At the end of the program, we invited all 402 program graduates to join the program’s alumni network. Even now, nine months after the conclusion of the final cohort, program participants are still active on the page — sharing opportunities with each other and keeping us all in the loop on their latest social enterprise endeavors.

Several of the 73 social enterprises that M²GATE fostered are moving forward. These include Kaizen, a Tunisia-Michigan team, that identified the lack of recycling in Tunisia as their issue. Their SmartBin solution puts much-needed recycling bins throughout Tunisia and rewards people for recycling through an app. Revenue is generated through ads on the bins and by reselling the recyclable material. Members of the SmartBin team are currently seeking investors.

It is gratifying to see some of these ideas moving forward, but the impact of this program is not limited to their success (as a new impact report on M²GATE illustrates – view or download the report here). The program succeeded in igniting in participants from a variety of backgrounds an entrepreneurial mindset and a passion for social entrepreneurship. Over half of the program graduates say they will use what they learned in the program to start a social enterprise in the future. If they follow through — and a handful already have — our future world could be enhanced by hundreds of social enterprises that all trace their roots back to M²GATE.

The question is no longer whether entrepreneurs (including social entrepreneurs) are born or made. It’s now how we best go about “making” them. We advocate for a thoughtful instructional design process that leverages appropriate technologies. As you design your next entrepreneurship education program or course, how can you use some or all of the elements above?


M²GATE was funded by the Stevens Initiative, an international effort to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people in the United States, the Middle East and North Africa. The Stevens Initiative is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Aspen Institute. The Stevens Initiative is also supported by the Bezos Family Foundation and the governments of Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.


Amy Gillett is Vice President of the Education sector at the William Davidson Institute.


Image courtesy of WDI. 



Education, Social Enterprise, Technology
business education, edtech