The Heller MBA and SID Social Entrepreneurs: Tackling Nothing Less than Global Poverty

March 09, 2015

By Laurie Covens

Hult Prize logo

When family poverty deprives young children of early childhood education, they enter primary school with a learning disadvantage. Not just because of rudimentary language skills, the inability to hold a pencil yet or recognize shapes or letters. What has been lost is crucial brain development, which neuroscience has shown is so fertile during a child’s first few years if properly stimulated by appropriate learning activities. Without that education, the brain’s neural and cognitive development falters, and then stabilizes at a level far below the child’s initial potential.

 How do you create a social enterprise that can provide 10 million children in the world’s slums with high-quality yet affordable early childhood education by 2020 – and do it sustainably? That is the daunting question facing three Heller students and one Brandeis undergraduate who will represent Brandeis in this year’s Hult Prize Social Enterprise Challenge. The annual competition co-hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative issues a call to action for social entrepreneurs who want to help solve one of the world’s most pressing social problems. Each year’s winning proposal receives $1 million in start-up funding, with President Bill Clinton presiding over the final award ceremony.

For the third year in a row, a Heller-Brandeis team has qualified for the regional competition, which initially drew 20,000 applications worldwide. The March 14 event takes place in Boston, San Francisco, Dubai, Shanghai, and London. The Brandeis Team will be co-led by Simone LaPray (Heller MA-SID/Heller MBA) and Christina Castellani (MA-SID).

LaPray spent four years with the Peace Corps, teaching English and training community development groups in Ukraine, and two years with the Social Security Administration back home, before deciding that government and nonprofit organizations lacked the tools to fully address complex social problems.

“I began thinking there must be a smarter way to intervene, and that business skills and strategic thinking might make it possible to maximize your impact,” she recalls. Her search led to Heller’s MBA Program in Nonprofit Management, where she discovered that the Social Entrepreneurship and Impact Management concentration gave her many of the answers – and tools – she was seeking.

“Until I came to Heller, I had no idea that what I wanted was to be a social entrepreneur,” says LaPray, who is combining her MBA with a Master’s degree in Sustainable International Development. “But once I started meeting fellow students, and faculty members like Brenda Anderson, Jon Chilingerian and Carole Carlson – all of them focused on creating smarter solutions that can help more people and more communities – I realized this is the world I want to be part of.”

When she heard that this year’s Hult Prize Social Enterprise Challenge called for early childhood education ventures, LaPray realized that if she and three Brandeis friends pooled their talents, they could easily make the perfect team.

Christina Castellani (MA-SID) has worked for education and youth development NGOs serving urban slum communities in Thailand, Korea, Uganda and Saudi Arabia. Evan Roth-Howe (MA-SID) has done early childhood education work in India, Mexico, the U.S., and is currently working in Rwanda. Brandeis undergraduate Jonathan Dweck (BA) has strengths on the technology side, bringing expertise in neuroscience and computer science.

“We do face really tough competition in the Hult Challenge,” admits Castellani. “But all of us are already invested in this kind of work, and committed to continuing in the field, so I think we have a really strong team.”

With a background in NGOs, Castellani is a newcomer to social entrepreneurship. “I find the whole concept really interesting,” she says. “Traditional international development groups or NGOs are always tied to certain funding sources and project cycles. With social enterprise there is much greater freedom. You have the ability to create a truly self-sustaining organization, which may be far more viable long-term.”

She initially considered Heller at a friend’s suggestion. “I’m very happy with my choice,” Castellani said. “I could have gone into a much larger program, but Heller gives those of us in global development training that is very practitioner-focused. I’m very glad I didn’t go anywhere else.”

Anderson, who directs Heller’s MBA in Nonprofit Management Program, notes that integrating business and social responsibility is nothing new. “Corporate social responsibility units have existed in for-profit companies for years, but the overall mandate of such organizations is to maximize shareholder value. In a social enterprise, social goals are the priority.”

While they invest in innovation to produce goods or services, and seek profit to ensure sustainability, social enterprises mandate social objectives – whether it is employment at a candle-making company in Haiti for impoverished women – or affordable early childhood education programs for very young children in the slums of Nairobi.

The social entrepreneur also aims for beneficial impact on communities overall, which requires looking at how the company itself is organized, by focusing on the “triple bottom line.”

“Financial profit is not enough,” Anderson explains. “You also need to create social and environmental profit. The social good comes from your mission, and frequently from who you’re hiring, and how you’re educating or training your employees. The environmental benefit depends on how you think about clean water, energy, green construction materials, and other infrastructure issues.”

Anderson notes that Heller’s MBA program in social entrepreneurship is highly regarded for how it integrates these social, ethical and environmental issues into its curriculum The Aspen Institute and the Global Green Survey have both ranked Heller’s MBA program fifth globally because of the consistent focus on comprehensive sustainability in its courses.

Against a very competitive landscape for MBA programs, she adds, Heller’s MBA in Nonprofit Management is experiencing a significant increase in applications, particularly from students interested in social entrepreneurship.

Two years ago, students staged the first Heller MBA Social Enterprise Start-Up Challenge, a competition inviting Brandeis undergraduates and graduate students to develop social enterprise proposals. A kind of “boot camp” for emerging social entrepreneurs, the Challenge gives students a chance to pitch their concepts to seasoned business people and other professionals, who also offer mentoring. The weekend closes by awarding $1000 to the team with the winning start-up proposal.

“Our students essentially orchestrate the entire event,” Anderson proudly notes. “It’s very entrepreneurial all the way around!”

“What’s most exciting about this kind of social enterprise incubator,” says LaPray, who helped organize this year’s Heller Start-Up Challenge, “is that magical moment when you encounter like-minded people, who share your vision, and coalesce around an idea you all believe in.”

With the Hult Prize competition fast approaching, the Brandeis team is finalizing its proposal, with special attention to the actual business model. “We need to make sure social responsibility is built into its DNA,” LaPray explains, “we also have the challenge of pricing our early childhood education program so that parents with limited resources can afford it.”

That complex synergy is the core challenge facing every social entrepreneur who wants to help build a better future for children, families, and communities struggling against terrible poverty. With their focus on a truly sustainable social enterprise that could spark community action, these Brandeis students are preparing to tackle nothing less.