WHAT’S SO FUNNY ABOUT MELDING BUSINESS WITH SOCIAL AWARENESS?
Strictly speaking, the Center for Peace and Commerce (CPC) is a room the size of a nice, large walk-in closet. Albeit a closet with a large portrait of Burmese political figure Aung San Suu Kyi on the wall and an open bottle of NIKA Water on the desk.
The center’s physical location is technically Assistant Director Nadia Auch’s modest, ground-level office in the Alcalá West complex on the edge of campus. The ideas the CPC represents, however, are vast enough to reach every corner of the globe.
“This is a very forward-thinking university,” CPC Faculty Director Patricia Marquez says. “We want be known as an institution that ties peace with commerce in a powerful way. We want USD to be a hub for thinking about new possibilities.”
In the past decade, the idea of infusing social responsibility into business education — popularized in the concept of the triple bottom line (people, planet, profit) — has gained increasing traction in academic circles. At USD, it’s business as usual.
“It’s really a part of the university’s DNA,” says Denise Dimon, director of the Ahlers Center for International Business. “I think we’ve been doing it all along, we just didn’t always have a name for it. We’ve always tried to train our students to be conscious about the social impact of business.” While the thread of a values-based education has long been woven into the fabric of USD, there wasn’t an overarching mechanism to coordinate and synthesize efforts to intertwine business training with social awareness.
In 2008, Marquez saw an opportunity to do just that — while nudging a fourth element (peace) into the triple bottom line — by initiating formal collaboration between the School of Business Administration and the Joan B. Kroc School of Peace Studies.
The concept was revelatory enough to convince Auch, whose international peace and public policy training has taken her to Mexico, England, Peru and South Africa, among other locales, to apply for the assistant director position.
“I was really intrigued by the idea of a partnership between a School of Peace Studies that’s one of a kind in North America and a business school that’s internationally ranked for its social responsibility, both on the same campus,” Auch says. “I wanted to be a part of that somehow and I was excited to have the challenge of helping to build this center.”
The CPC officially opened its doors — or door, rather — in September 2009. With the guidance of Marquez, Auch and School of Peace Studies Professor Topher McDougal, the center’s mission was honed to emphasize teaching, research and enterprise development. The fledgling center is now at the core of USD’s efforts to lead the fusion of business and social responsibility in higher education.
“They’re different schools doing different things in different ways,” Marquez says. “But what we’ve found is that we really have a lot of common goals.”
All those threadbare clichés about the merciless avarice of business and the earnest naivety of social activism hold little water in the burgeoning arena of conscientious commerce. The distinction between for profit and nonprofit enterprises has particularly blurred in a global climate where the term “economic stability” has become an oxymoron.
“There’s a lot to be gained on both sides,” Dimon says. “There’s so much more that we can do together than apart. Businesses can gain a lot from understanding the people and communities they aim to serve, and nonprofits can gain a lot by using business models in running their organizations. There are a lot more synergies than people realize.”
That’s not to say there aren’t challenges; even at an institution like USD that has spent decades training students to meld business principles with social awareness.
“We don’t always speak the same language,” Auch says. “All schools tend to work in silos but there is overlap. We work to find those points of connection.”
What an MBA student might consider “synergy,” a peace studies scholar would call “working together.” A business-centric “value proposition” becomes an altruistic “mission statement.” But while there may be differing means — and semantics — the end is the same.
“It’s infused throughout everything we do,” Dimon says. “It all starts with a good, solid business foundation, but that additional focus of social responsibility is something that I think is very attractive to our students.”
That combination has been manifested in different ways. Elements of social responsibility, social entrepreneurship and sustainability have become ingrained in the business curriculum. And a community service component, along with courses like “Sustainable Business Model Design,” is required of all MBA students.
Of course, nothing resonates quite like experience. With the assistance of the CPC, the Ahlers Center and the Center for Community Service Learning, USD business students have a wide array of opportunities to put their training literally into service.
“We try to focus on the role that business can play,” Dimon says. “It may not be traditional volunteerism, but I think it shows that business can also have a strong social impact.”
That impact has resulted in students participating in projects like creating a business model to serve poor communities for a utility company in Brazil, initiating micro-financing programs in Mexico and helping a bank in Argentina establish sustainable business practices.
In addition, the Student International Business Council (SIBC) has initiated a range of projects, often working with burgeoning, socially conscious businesses and nonprofit organizations like NIKA Water in San Diego, Guayaki Beverages in Argentina, Rapha House in Cambodia and the Bullpen Foundation in the Dominican Republic.
“We have a real entrepreneurial spirit amongst the students,” SIBC Director Robin McCoy says. “We’ve done a lot of projects for socially minded organizations but we’ve developed a niche of working with start-ups in particular. Those companies really resonate with our students.”
During her five years overseeing the SIBC, McCoy has seen the council shift its focus increasingly toward direct social entrepreneurship, largely at the behest of students.
“I definitely think our students bring that to the table,” McCoy says. “They aren’t just focused on making a profit. They want to make a difference. They want to make an impact.”
It’s a call to action that has helped shape the CPC’s vision.
“We want to encourage and nurture that spark,” Marquez says. “Our role is to figure out how we can harness the enthusiasm and creativity of students to move ideas into action.”
Last September, Auch met with members of the CPC’s student advisory council inside the library at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. She asked the dozen or so students, a mix of undergraduate and graduate from business and peace studies, to each jot down an idea expressing how they could work together to solve a problem.
Auch expected a wide range of proposals and viewpoints in accordance with the students’ seemingly disparate academic backgrounds. She was pleasantly mistaken.
“Once you translated it down, every single student in the room had the same idea,” Auch says. “They all wanted to help vulnerable populations by sharing the knowledge that they were learning here.”
The ideas differed on the specific population to be served — refugees, at-risk youth, the elderly, the impoverished — but the underlying desire was still helping those in need.
“They’re ready to do something. Now,” Auch says. “Our challenge is to keep up with their drive and find projects they can be involved in right away.”
That spark first led to a CPC-sponsored service trip to Tijuana last December with students volunteering for the San Diego nonprofit 4 Walls International to help build a community center using recycled materials. Then, in January, the CPC unveiled its inaugural Social Innovation Challenge
The competition, which was open to undergraduate and grad-uate business and peace studies students, sought for profit and nonprofit ideas as well as consulting projects for existing organizations. Sixteen teams submitted proposals — almost double what was expected.
“We were amazed by the response,” says Marquez, who hopes to expand the Challenge campus-wide in the future. “Not just with the number of applicants but with the quality of the projects. It was surprising, and really quite moving, to see how thoughtful and passionate these students are about making a difference.”
The CPC enlisted the help of professors and local business and nonprofit leaders to serve as mentors and judges. The rigorous demands of the competition required students to develop in-depth business plans and succinct presentations through a multi-faceted evaluation process to underscore the complex reality of bringing a proposal to fruition.
“It’s not just about coming up with a great idea. You have to be able to put it into action from both a business perspective and a social perspective,” Marquez says. “A lot of students think they have to come up with something that changes the world in three days, but sometimes it’s the simplest ideas that have the biggest impact.”
It seems natural — if not poetic — that the first-place proposal came from Tiffany Owen ’12, an intrepid Bay Area native majoring in business and sociology with a minor in ethics. Owen’s project, “Clean California, Clean Haiti,” aims to combat water-borne illnesses in earthquake-ravaged Haiti through a concerted recycling effort in San Diego County. The $5,000 award was enough to get “Clean California, Clean Haiti” off and running.
“To get funding to make it happen instead of holding a hundred bake sales was great for us,” Owen says. “But it was also a great opportunity to put together a well-structured business plan and get insight and feedback from professors and professionals about what we could do better.”
The winning proposal was inspired from the “Imagine Haiti Tomorrow” project Owen created after embarking on a service trip to the Caribbean nation in 2010. On that initial sojourn, Owen and a group of fellow college students worked to rebuild and repair. But it soon became apparent that it would take a lot more to make a tangible difference.
“We saw very devastated people in a very devastated country in a very desperate situation,” she says. “We knew we needed to do something.”
After winning the Social Innovation Challenge, Owen and her team returned to Haiti last May and successfully installed three water purification systems in and around the town of Les Cayes. And while Owen says her “Clean California, Clean Haiti” project is “still evolving,” her latest trip to Haiti inspired yet another idea. Working with community members in Les Cayes, Owen and Imagine Haiti Tomorrow are working to build an Internet café that offers a computer-based English language course to help local residents improve their employment prospects.
Through purchases and donations, Owen and her team have already gathered several computers, Rosetta Stone language software, solar panels and batteries while coordinating construction efforts.
“It’s not saving the world, we’re just trying to have some positive impact on peoples’ lives,” Owen says, matter-of-factly. “I don’t think I’m helping anybody in Haiti half as much as what I’ve learned from them.”
Humility isn’t a prerequisite at USD. However, the opportunity to understand and embrace the importance of both sound academic training and selfless social awareness has become in-grained in the university’s culture. It’s a fact that isn’t lost on Owen.
“It’s something that USD has really focused on and I think that’s really evident,” Owen says. “There are so many students here who want to make a difference. It’s wonderful that USD gives us the opportunity to do that.” — Nathan Dinsdale