What were you doing over winter break? While everyone’s answer varies, fifteen students had the opportunity to help small business leaders in a developing nation. This January, Deborah Streeter launched the first semester of AEM 3382: Social Enterprise Development. Students visited El Rodeito, Honduras for one week over break, met with small businesses, and are spending the spring semester developing solutions for the businesses’ problems.
This course will be held once every other year, and Professor Streeter is working to develop a similar course in South Africa. Werner Zorman, a leadership professor in the engineering school, also helps instruct the social enterprise students. Professor Streeter and Professor Zorman excitedly spoke about this unique educational experience:
Why was this class developed?
Professor Streeter: There are a lot of students who have interests in entrepreneurship, but they are not necessarily interested in high growth businesses or tech businesses. They see entrepreneurship as a vehicle for being a changemaker. Nancy Bell is a staff member with Entrepreneurship@Cornell who has a non profit in Honduras. She had already been taking students to Honduras for a couple of years on almost every break. We got talking about how students could get credit to do that. I think it is important to see entrepreneurship in a broad sense, that it can be more than a tech startup when you are in college.
Who should take this course?
Professor Zorman: I think students who are open-minded enough to see where people suffer and who want to make a difference should take this course. I think reading about poverty is one thing, then watching intense videos is another, but you get the whole picture by being there for a whole week and engaging with the people. It increases your desire to do something about it.
Professor Streeter: The students who should take this course enjoy experiential learning that helps amplify the book and classroom learning that they’ve done about entrepreneurship and issues with inequality. We were working with four different small businesses there, and the students had to be very creative. They needed to embrace ambiguity and be creative in problem solving.
What do students learn from this course?
Professor Streeter: We are in our first round, so we do not know everything yet. They learn about themselves and about a place that is similar to many places of poverty across the globe. They learn the powers and limitations of business to solve the problem of income inequality. They learn it is not as simple as change your branding, or increase your price. It’s embedded in a culture, economy, poor infrastructure, bad health system, and lack of education.
It comes back to knowing when and how to pivot. If you go down a path and the results are not what you think they should be, should you pivot or should you persist? Those are questions that don’t have answers in the back of the book. That’s another thing they learn.
Professor Zorman: Students learned humility by comprehending the complexity, how everything is tied to each other. We put them in project teams to focus on the different businesses. They learned how to work in teams. They learned a lot from the first interview with the first business, had a debrief, and the next went very different. The week helped them become better team players, and now they are back and are working through the semester in teams.
What is the most rewarding aspect of this course?
Professor Streeter: I am very impressed with the optimism among the students and how personally they have taken the assignment to be useful for these businesses. They are not discouraged by all of the things we have seen. Whether they really can help or not is yet to be determined, but their optimism takes me by surprise.