By Professor Raymond Horton,
Founder of the Social Enterprise Program

The practice of social enterprise is changing rapidly, and academia has a hard time agreeing on its definition. This is not unusual. Practitioners often are a step or two ahead, particularly in a field like social enterprise that is changing rapidly.

But this means we often give contradictory answers to those who ask ‘What is social enterprise?’ My purpose here is not to address the general question, but to describe briefly what it means at Columbia Business School.

We describe social enterprise as the application of business methods to the solution of social problems. We believe that the tools of private enterprise, prudently applied, can generate social and environmental benefits, and by extension, that well-trained MBAs can make the world better as well as richer.

Columbia’s Social Enterprise Program is distinguished in three ways. One is that we take a broad view of the vantages and scope of social enterprise. The second is the quality of the learning experience. The third, which contributes importantly to the first two, is our New York City location.

A Broad View of the Field

We think broadly about the vantages from which social enterprise can be practiced, and we think broadly about the scope of the problems to which social enterprise can be directed. Our views on these matters are reflected in the architecture and workings of Columbia’s Social Enterprise Program.

That we think inclusively about the vantages from which social enterprise can be practiced explains why we call our program a program in social enterprise rather than a program in public and nonprofit managementsocial entrepreneurshipcorporate social responsibility, or other subfields. We recognize, based on observation and participation in the field, that no single approach monopolizes the social enterprise space. We also know, based on experience, that Columbia Business School students will practice social enterprise in multiple ways during their lifetimes.

So we’ve designed Columbia’s Social Enterprise Program to help our students become leaders in the practice of social enterprise, whether as business executives who are able to align social responsibility and profit; as social entrepreneurs who can not only start but grow productive ventures to scale; as nonprofit leaders who have the ability to sharpen the focus and improve the performance of their organizations; as public officials, whether appointed or elected, who are able to use their special positions to serve public interests; as philanthropists who know how to contribute money to nonprofit agencies in ways that make them work better; as board directors who are able to exercise their governance powers in constructive ways; and as volunteers who know how to bring their skills to the day-to-day needs of nonprofits. In other words, we think there are a lot of ways MBAs can make the world a better place.

There are many places in the world where things could be better—in our neighborhood, city, nation, and around the world. In particular, Columbia Business School is distinctive in the extent to which it has an international perspective. We recognize that globalization is creating exciting new opportunities to practice social enterprise globally, particularly in developing nations, in each and every one of the ways noted above. Our students work on international issues from the vantages of multinational and national corporations, international governments, and international nonprofits or NGOs.

Quality of the Learning Experience

The second way our program is distinctive is in the quality of the learning experience, which includes courses and extra-curricular activities that address the practice of social enterprise. We’ve been very fortunate to have the resources required to build a curriculum from the ground up as opposed to the cheaper and easier route of recycling existing courses. This has provided an unusual opportunity to shape the content of courses, to recruit the right faculty to teach them, and to work continuously with faculty and students on their improvement.

We evaluate all of the Social Enterprise programs as systematically as is possible. With respect to curriculum, high quality to us means that courses receive extraordinary evaluations from students, with respect to both their content and instruction.

We also have a distinctive set of extra-curricular programs and activities that enrich the learning experience. Our Social Enterprise Summer Fellowships program taps into the variety of nonprofit organizations, social ventures, and government agencies that students work with in New York City and around the world. The international development consulting program supports the travel of students who go abroad to complete their in-term consulting projects in developing countries. Our Nonprofit Board Leadership Program provides students with the opportunity to work with alumni who serve on the boards of some of the city’s most established organizations.

Many other activities—including international study tours, practitioner conferences, research symposia, information sessions with practitioners, and office hours with faculty and staff—provide Columbia MBA and EMBA students with additional opportunities to deepen their understanding of social enterprise and broaden their networks. Most of these activities are enriched by the fact that only a subway ride separates the campus from the world’s greatest laboratory in social enterprise.

The New York City Location

New York City adds immensely to Columbia’s Social Enterprise Program. Our location helps us provide a high-quality, broad-based social enterprise program. While our primary purpose is to educate the next generation of leaders in the field of social enterprise, we also have a strong tradition of service to New York City that is manifested in the activities of our students and the careers of our alumni, including the members of the Social Enterprise Advisory Board who help the Program in many ways.

We also collaborate in mutually beneficial ways with social enterprises in New York City and around the world. I’m now serving as Faculty Director of Social Enterprise Programs in Executive Education at Columbia Business School. This is a position I assumed in January 2009 in anticipation of stepping down as Director of the Social Enterprise Program in June and the restructuring of the executive education programs formerly offered under the aegis of the Institute for Not-For-Profit Management (INM).

Executive Education offers open enrollment as well as custom programs for specific U.S. and international organizations. These programs expand Executive Education’s social enterprise offerings for businesses, public, and nonprofit organizations into fields such as emissions trading and alternative energy, social entrepreneurship, arts management, board governance, and strategic philanthropy.

I look forward to hearing from those of you that have an interest in our Executive Education programs, as well as alumni, colleagues, and friends of the Social Enterprise Program.

Read Professor Horton's message on the meaning and field of social enterprise here.