As I wrote in my last blog post, I have the opportunity to work with some of the smartest minds in the country as a result of my teaching. I love my job – because it challenges me; because it is an evolving academic discipline. Sometimes I feel barely a half a step in front of the students. And I know that I have an awesome responsibility in terms of what I teach and how I am helping to shape the next generation of leaders.
But I am also aware that I live in a bubble. Because these students are smart and have access, we are able to dream things that seem un-dream-able.
What about those who don’t have access – those who don’t have access to education, to financial assistance, to mind-blowing international opportunities, to networks, to internships, to the best jobs?
Thankfully I work for an institution that cares about those things. It doesn’t mean it’s any easier to provide that access. We wrack our brains and try to wrap our minds around solutions that will help to provide that access. And, I’m the first to admit that we may or may not be doing it in a way that is imperialistic. We are a less diverse academic community than we want to be in a less-than-diverse geographic region. How do we help to solve problems in diverse communities without presuming we know more than those communities?
Over the course of the spring semester, several of my students developed a social enterprise plan that would bring jobs to Detroit. It would bring attention to a Rust Belt community that is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Their plan was to sell a product to a demographic that looks like them. That can afford the product. Their marketing plan was a thing of beauty. If these students were to move forward on their business plan, there is no doubt that they could see it through. Not only was it a good idea, but they have the capacity and the connections to move forward. It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be difficult or that they wouldn’t experience many sleepless nights getting the business up and off the ground, but they would be the typical investor’s dream enterprise.
If these students moved forward with their idea, employment in a Rust Belt community is a good thing, right? Drawing attention to Detroit? Adding to the tax base? Revitalizing an old manufacturing facility that previously lay (or lie) dormant? Attracting other millennials to this vibrant city? Other millennials from elite, less-than-diverse, socially-oriented schools that look just like them?
Is that enough? Is that “making a difference”? Some might say that it is, and I agree that we need this sort of enterprise to provide employment in an under-resourced community. It means more stability for wage earners and their families. But, and these questions may seem harsh – and I hope they generate comments – is employing an under-represented parent to sew denim enough? Is it enough that s/he has a job? Is it enough that s/he can afford to purchase food for their family? New clothing? Purchase a home? Renovate that same home? Educate their children? So that in another generation or two those same children will be college-educated or can afford to send their children to college? Is this enough?
How do we create that same opportunity – the capacity to start and grow a successful business – for the under-represented? The under-resourced? Minorities? Women? How do we make entrepreneurship more inclusive? What if that same under-represented parent had the same idea? Who would “win”?
I love my job, but I don’t want to teach only students who can afford to attend this institution. How do I/we change that? How do we make it possible for that parent to get access to the same resources? To the same educational tools? To the same networks? To the same human and financial and intellectual capital? How do we build that individual’s capacity? His or her community’s capacity?
I admit that I do not have all of the answers. We’ve already made mistakes in thinking that we do, but I do think we have some answers. And, we know others who have some answers. How do we knit these answers together? How do we fashion a community of inclusive entrepreneurs? How do we create an ecosystem? How do we catalyze human-centric problem solvers? How do we create collisions?
These are the questions that we are grappling with, that keep us up at night. If we truly want to see (social) entrepreneurship achieve scale, then we need to do everything we can to answer these questions, to address these problems. Everyone deserves a seat at the table. Entrepreneurship MUST be inclusive.
Join us on October 27th and 28th for the Irish Impact Conference so that we can further dialogue. We are delighted to bring Amon Anderson, co-director of Acumen America, to campus for the 2016 conference. Acumen is trying to successfully answer these very questions, by investing in entrepreneurs who are addressing financial inclusivity, healthcare, and workforce development, among many other social and environmental issues. Register today!
Melissa Paulsen is an assistant director at the Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship in the Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame. She serves as director for the Center’s social entrepreneurship program as well as concurrent professional faculty in the undergraduate and graduate programs. For more information about Irish Impact, please visit the Irish Impact website or contact Melissa at firstname.lastname@example.org.