paul hudnut

Colorado State on Global Social and Sustainable Entrepreneurship

As with many ventures, the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise Program at Colorado State University arose from small group of people who saw a need for something different, and decided to do something. It is a start up, for start ups.

CSU prides itself on its early involvement in the formation of the Peace Corps and longstanding work in international development, engineering, natural resource management, environmental science, and infectious disease. Our students, much like students elsewhere, are practical and purposeful. They come to university to learn, but also to start their careers. Many want to make the world a better place and tackle global challenges.

Sometimes, serendipity happens. With this history of international development and passion for impact, things started to occur in 2003 that ultimately led to the GSSE program. A team of engineering students developed a retrofit technology to make small engines operate more fuel efficiently. Their professor, Bryan Willson, suggested they take an entrepreneurship class at the Business School. When the students, Nathan Lorenz and Tim Bauer showed up for class in January 2003, I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time. The front of that classroom. Teaching my first class. Ever.

Envirofit was born in that class. But so was our recognition that entrepreneurship could be a profound lever in achieving social and environmentally beneficial results that could not be achieved through aid programs. And that there was no place (yet) where students could go learn how to build ventures that would tackle global challenges such as environmental degradation, poverty and disease. Our business school dean, Ajay Menon, encouraged us to look into changing that.

The GSSE program was built on the idea that we could provide students with the tools, experience and network to build and manage global enterprises with a triple bottom line focus. We made it global- our goal is to have at least half of each cohort from outside the US. We made it short and intense- so people would not have too high an opportunity cost to attend the program (they start in August, and finish 16 months later). Because we believe field experience is important, we made an enterprise project a foundation of the program- selected in the first semester, developed in the second, validated and refined with summer field work, and presented to potential investors a year later.

The general structure of GSSE is to provide core classes in MBA subjects: marketing, accounting, finance, project management, etc. But each is adapted to deal with the specific challenges of sustainability. Every semester there is a class on innovation and entrepreneurship where students can develop their project and apply what they are learning. And we add in special courses such as Personal Leadership for Changemakers and Technology, Science and Policy.

While our students study cases and build spreadsheets, just like other MBA students, the project provides them the opportunity to learn by doing. Hypothetical discussions can only take learning so far. To bake it in, to make it sustainable, we believe that students must learn by doing real work on real ventures.

So how has it gone so far- three years in? As with many ventures, we got some things right, we have had to refine other aspects, and we ran into unexpected difficulties (who knew there would be a financial melt down just as our first cohort graduated?). We have attracted a dedicated faculty, many of whom have been recognized for their teaching and research. We have attracted many passionate, entrepreneurial students from over a dozen countries, including Iraq, Nepal, Mongolia, and Rwanda. Many of our graduates have found interesting work at leading organizations, or by starting their own ventures… despite challenging economic headwinds. Our students have become Acumen Fellows and TED fellows and have found work in government, NGOs and companies.

New ventures are emerging from GSSE. Small Engines for Economic Development is working on low cost diesel irrigation pumps in Bangladesh. Powermundo is distributing energy efficient products in rural Peru. AYZH is selling sterile birth kits in India. Panda Bikes, founded by GSSE grads, is selling beautiful bamboo bicycles. Running Water is selling biosand filters in Kenya.

These ventures still face challenges- they have launched, but they have not yet scaled. And we have found that they need continued support after “graduation” from the program. We have also found that we need to do better at promoting our program to employers, although I believe this will improve as we have more graduates and they have more impact.

As I write this post, our third cohort of students is heading out for their summer field work. One team is working on new approaches for fertilizers for small acreage farmers in Ethiopia, another on reducing dengue fever in Guatemala, another helping NGO’s establish supply chains in Africa, and another on helping connect rural communities in Baja to markets. I don’t know what will happen. I know they will struggle. They will experience set backs, ambiguity and small successes. They will build relationships. And they will learn. A lot.

When they return to campus in late August, they, and their ventures, will have changed. Some questions will have been answered, and new questions will have emerged. They will share experiences with a new cohort of entering students who will be starting their own GSSE journeys. And they will soon graduate and continue their work to make a difference in the way we approach the many challenges our planet faces.