Social Venturing in Action. Literally.

Monday, January 8, 2018

For the last five years, Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship Senior Lecturer Steve Spruth has been emphasizing the “in action” part of his MGMT 4000 course, Social Venturing in Action. The undergraduate class is designed to be similar to the hands-on approach MBAs receive in their Enterprise courses.

The genesis of the class began about 10 years ago when a group of students wanted and helped create a nonprofit major at the Carlson School. “The capstone was this class, where you can study how local nonprofits can try to solve the world’s problems,” says Spruth, who team-teaches the class with Venture Enterprise Director Toby Nord. “But some of the most interesting social projects were not in nonprofits, they were in for profits. This last year we got permission to broaden this capstone class to look at what social entrepreneurs are doing to make the world a better place.”

Now, half the class does consulting projects with nonprofits and half are working with for-profit companies. “They are doing amazing work and amazing projects,” Spruth says.

One example is Sunrise Banks. “It’s a public benefit corporation, which means it is written into its legal charter that it is not only producing profits, but also achieving good social results,” Spruth says. The assignment was to look for a nontraditional way to provide banking service in North Minneapolis. Spruth found out about the bank’s need from his teaching assistant, Adam Rao, who was about to take a job there.

“Most of the residents in the area rely on payday lenders, check cashers, and alternative financial services for day-to-day living,” says Rao, ’17 MBA and now senior associate of corporate strategy and innovation at Sunrise Banks. “So we had the students work on the voice of the customer in North Minneapolis and other financial deserts in the U.S. and see what banks and other financial institutions have been doing to resolve those.” The students then made a presentation of the trends and pain points they discovered to the bank advisory board. “We’ve been chewing on that information ever since,” Rao says.

If you are interested in what drives social performance and financial importance, Rao says, you have to get out there and do it. And the opportunity to do it is pretty rare—for undergraduate students. “They had a chance to interact. That’s the fundamental change,” he says. “These folks were working on real projects in the real world with financial and community impacts. We take the work that they did seriously.”

The class also worked with Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit and the nation’s largest provider of canoebased education. “We are designing an activity where Carlson School students will canoe down the Mississippi River this fall learning about water-related projects past, present, and future,” Spruth says. Wilderness Inquiry, with an office in Dinkytown, is founded and directed by Greg Lais, ’91 MBA. “Steve was thinking how he could weave this river experience in more of an academic way,” he says. “We talked about all of the pieces in terms of business development. St. Anthony Falls, the founding of the milling industry, river transportation, waterworks system—so many of our things started here in the community because of the river.”

The class will spend two-and-a-half days paddling the river in 24-foot canoes and visiting sites from a water intake plant in Fridley—which serves most of Minneapolis and St. Paul—to a waste treatment plant in Cottage

Grove. Along the way, students will observe all the businesses that have evolved on the river bank as well as the native life—otters, eagles, and blue herons—that make the river their home.

“A lot of people may think that it’s environmental education. Certainly there is a lot to learn there, but it’s not environmental education per se,” Lais says. “The class is really about experiencing the Twin Cities in terms of business and infrastructure through the experience of the Mississippi River. Discovering how the natural environment and natural resources helped to shape the creation of the Twin Cities and how the two interact even to this day. Ecology, commerce, and business rolled into one.”


A Force for Transformation

Students entering the workforce need to bring with them real-world experiences, time spent beyond the classroom applying their intellectual capacities in a hands-on way. Today’s business environment demands it. Experiential learning programs bring critical thinking skills to bear while solving real problems for real businesses and education abroad programs develop student competencies, all while working cross-culturally.

Learn more about using business as a force for good in the Carlson School Alumni Magazine, where this feature originally appeared, or on the Driven campaign website.