Spotlight: Belmont University’s Social Entrepreneurship Program

By Christina Ashworth

Photo by Heidi Sandstrom. on Unsplash

Social entrepreneurship is an old concept with a new name, and an even newer appearance in academia. The basic explanation I’ve given to employers, friends, and nosy relatives alike when explaining my degree is that social entrepreneurship seeks to use business practices and principles to solve social issues. Companies like TOMS and Warby Parker have made social enterprise a mainstream business model, and schools like Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee hope to do the same thing with academia.

Started in 2008, Belmont’s SET program was one of the first and is still one of just a few undergraduate programs in social entrepreneurship in the United States. It remains one of the smallest majors at the university — only just this year will it go over the triple-digit threshold for total graduates in the history of the program. But good things come in small packages.

Currently, the degree can be obtained in either B.A. or B.S., and there are five “tracks,” or focuses to choose from in the social entrepreneurship program:

  • Contemporary Social Issues (mine) deals with modern issues such as race, class, gender, and other forms of inequality.
  • Economic Development focuses on using economics and business development as a tool for change. It’s great for the more math-minded individuals in the program.
  • Global Social Entrepreneurship deals with the global focus rather than domestic and requires study abroad and intermediate-level foreign language classes.
  • Faith, Culture and Ethics has a strong focus on theological and philosophical approaches to social entrepreneurship
  • Environmental Science discusses environmental issues through various lenses (scientific, political, etc.) and is the smallest focus in the major (Come on, help save the planet, people!)

This major is perfect for those who can’t quite narrow their interests down to a more conventional major and would otherwise be stuck double- or triple-majoring just to fit all of it in . The SET curriculum, depending on the focus, is a hodgepodge of sociology, business, political science, economics, theology, philosophy, science and language courses.

The only courses in the curriculum under the “SET” label are a 9-hour seminar sequence: Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship, Junior Internship (more on that in a minute), and Senior Capstone, where the senior class is assigned to a nonprofit in the area to provide some sort of tangible outcome at the end of the semester. Most recently, the Senior Capstone project involved assigning teams of students to nonprofits participating in the Center for Nonprofit Management’s Innovation Catalyst program, with the teams producing various final products, including draft sections of a business plan.

Perhaps the most crucial part of the curriculum is the Junior Internship course. As someone who spent four years explaining what her major is, the Junior Internship helps answer the next most common question — “So what can you do with that?” For a semester, students are paired with a local nonprofit/social enterprise and meet in seminars to discuss their progress. This class turned out to be the best part of my SET experience — I was encouraged by Dr. Bernard Turner, the head of the program, to be the first student to try a semester abroad program in London that fit the SET curriculum. It allowed me to intern abroad to fulfill my Junior Internship course (major selling point, as I was a rising senior who still needed that credit). People may not know what SET means, but they know what “interned in London” means, and opportunities like this give the program a boost in street cred for those who may not yet understand SET.

The future of this major looks strong. Millennials, with their increasing interest in social consciousness and environmentalism, are already causing schools across the nation to teach courses in SET, and more undergraduate programs are likely to follow. But for now, Belmont University’s social entrepreneurship program intends to grow as Nashville does and help put social entrepreneurship on the map.