The University as a Center of Gravity for Social Startups

As an early–stage social enterprise incubator, the Hatchery strongly supports broad participation of students in their respective local communities. While many student-run startups create employment and mobility in the communities they engage, few create models that are sustainable without reliable partners. Universities can play a vital role as partners for such startups; they may formalize entrepreneurship and community development projects into their curricula as well as work in cohort with local incubators supporting operational social enterprises. We believe the need of the hour is greater integration between universities and all stakeholders in the social enterprise scene.

Our convention with university leaders at the TNLC14 conference brought to light critical factors in achieving such integration. Our partners in Chile, Mexico, and Burkina Faso highlighted oft-encountered challenges in the pursuit of greater community partnerships, as well as interventions that can address these challenges. Here are key learnings from the convention:

1) PEDAGOGY MATTERS. As a partner from The Southern University of Chile (UACh) pointed out, universities that teach entrepreneurship usually alter the course structure from the ‘original’ to a ‘university’ format. Students see it in purely academic terms, hesitate to take ownership of course projects and drop out later. Universities can change this by creating interest in social enterprise and in the process providing known social businesses a continuous resource: students seeking experience. Students must be properly incentivized to take courses in social enterprise; ultimately, they must own the course and instructors must tailor it to that end.

2) Social Startups must BREAK OUT OF A FIXED MARKET SEGMENT. According to delegates from the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2IE), Burkina Faso, student incubatees need seed money and financial resources for their startups. They find it difficult to take out bank loans, buy and set up infrastructure and sustain high-tech projects. As a result, they pilot in and stay confined to a market segment for incubators. Universities, again, must play their part. By developing strong parterships, including one with infoDev, a multi-donor program of the World Bank Group, 2IE has secured a reliable network of business angels looking to finance social enterprises not just in Burkina Faso but in West Africa as a whole.

3) As per delegates of Universidad Veracruzana (UV), Mexico, government is an important determinant of the kind of activities a university supports. In existing government-university relationships, most universities are interested in supporting research projects but are reluctant to take ownership of long-term, community engagement projects. Both parties often have conflicting goals; government focus is usually short-term. In light of these issues, there is a need to FOSTER GREATER UNIVERSITY-GOVERNMENT ENGAGEMENT. As a public university, UV has established Engagement Programs, which for 20 years have facilitated links between academic activities and local communities which represent fertile ground socio-economic development. To date, almost 4,000 students in 40 disciplines have participated on the programs, working with NGOs and public sector organizations in favor of sustainable development of the state of Veracruz. UV has thus gained the confidence of local businesses, communities and government agencies, which highly value the University’s collaboration.

LUMS as a Supporter of Social Impact

LUMS, through the Social Innovation Lab, fulfills some of the aforementioned community development roles of the university. It does so in two ways. On the most direct level, SIL visits communities with pre-existing social ventures and helps in capacity building areas such as marketing and product design. An example would be how SIL recently visited Gilgit Baltistan, evaluated a women-run carpet center in Gulmit and suggested new, more viable supply chains. The second way LUMS furthers community development is through the Hatchery, SIL’s incubator that supports startups with considerable social impact.

However, there are still gaps in LUMS’ community engagement quotient. There are a few ways in which LUMS can change this:

  1. Courses on social entrepreneurship, community development or non-profit leadership should be made mandatory at undergraduate level.
  2. A significant part of the courses/curriculum (weightage) should be the practical experience component (a semester long project with a non-profit or social enterprise, addressing a critical issue that they may face, for example).
  3. Greater weightage should be granted for community development and volunteer work for admissions and scholarships at graduate and undergraduate levels.
  4. LUMS could provide a greater proportion of its own resource, the students, to social enterprises or non-profits (connection with Career Services Office) through internships.
  5. Case studies of social enterprises should be taught at the Suleman Dawood School of Business. SIL can assist by providing white papers of its incubatees to the business school.