Interview: Gabriel Brodbar of NYU’s Program in Social Entrepreneurship on trends to look for in 2011
Gabriel Brodbar is the founding director of the Catherine B. Reynolds Program in Social Entrepreneurship at NYU, which is designed to attract, train, and encourage the next generation of leaders interested in careers in public service. The program, which will soon select its sixth class to begin in the fall of 2011, is the first of its kind to take a university-wide approach to social entrepreneurship, inviting students from all disciplines to be an integral part of its offerings. Having spent a year developing the school’s academic approach to social entrepreneurship, Brodbar has a unique view on what makes for a successful degree program. Dowser spoke to him about the Reynolds philosophy and the different kinds of change-making roles that he believes have led to social entrepreneurship as a meta-profession.
Dowser: Being on the academic side of social entrepreneurship, what are some of the critical developments that you’ve noticed happening in the field?
Brodbar: From an academic standpoint, we look at social entrepreneurship as being a much larger meta-profession under which many other professions can fall. It’s critical to have business skills, but that’s simply one tool for entrepreneurs. Nearly all professions have a role to play in advancing social change, and because of that we have all types of students in the program, from law students, to med students, public policy, etc. Problems don’t happen within a particular discipline, and most innovative solutions are not going to come from one particular silo anymore. In a few short years of the program, we’ve seen that realized in very successful ways here. The critical component is letting all kinds of students work together. You’ll see more and more social entrepreneurship programs popping up at universities, but they’re not really social entrepreneurship programs, they are social enterprise programs. Enterprise is just one piece of it. Most of us in this community are still trying to figure out if social entrepreneurship is a profession, or a field, or something else. We don’t quite know yet.
If enterprise is just one part of social entrepreneurship, what are the other components?
The philosophy of the Reynolds program is that there are multiple change-making roles, and we are trying to seek out all these different types of social entrepreneurs. We are always going to be interested in the visionaries who want to create solutions and we seek them out in very different stages of their trajectory. Someone could come to the program having already run a for-profit business that they are looking to fine tune for a very specific social cause, or they come to the program with an idea and spend their time here developing it.
The second type of entrepreneur is the infrastructure folks. These are people who are going to build and sustain the infrastructure needed for these visionary ideas to truly take root and flourish. If this movement and profession is really going to take off, we’re going to need the lawyers for example, who are going to create the new legal entity for these companies and address the legal issues that arise. We are also going to need technology that will help realize the social return on investments in these companies, so that requires an engineering and management role.
The third type of changemaker is those who will spur change through the arts – the journalists, the documentary filmmakers, the musicians. Those are the ones who are not only going to get the message out, but are also helping to advance the movement in important ways. I’m no longer seeing just lone wolves that make change happen in a vacuum. It’s becoming a broader way of thinking about social entrepreneurship and the change that happens when the skills of a number of different people come together.
What do you think will be the result of more schools offering social entrepreneurship programs and degrees?
While I definitely see an increased focus by universities globally on teaching social entrepreneurship, I don’t think anybody has got it quite right yet. I’m constantly being visited by deans of the business schools from other global universities who tell me that they want to start a program in their school and can I help them structure it. One of the things that I really hammer home with them is that if you’re going to do this, it has to be a cross-university program. You can’t exclude a particular profession from it. Some schools are being too hasty about it and pulling something off the shelf, and in those cases, the overall quality of the program remains to be seen. The sustainable solutions are going to be realized when the public, not-for-profit, and for-profit sectors work collaboratively.
These are notions that guide everything we do in the Reynolds program. With our speaker series in particular, we invite people to speak that are from all different sectors, and reflect the notion of social entrepreneurship as a meta profession.
Do you think social entrepreneurship is something that can be taught? How much of the program is about educating and how much is just about cultivating?
It’s the question of, are social entrepreneurs born or made? That’s something we struggled with when we were putting the program together because there’s the argument that a true social entrepreneur doesn’t need grad school to succeed. They are just going to do their thing regardless of barriers or obstacles. However, I think social entrepreneurship can be taught, but only by virtue of the fact that it requires interaction with these multiple change-making roles. There are no doubt certain characteristics that already need to be in place if someone is what I call the type 1 visionary entrepreneur. But some of the things that make for a successful social entrepreneur are a matter of cultivating. For the types that are infrastructure builders or working in the media and arts, some of those skills can unquestionably be taught since the goal is achieving true social breakthrough, and that can’t happen without all these different types of people.
How are you evolving the program at Reynolds to adapt to the quickly changing field of social entrepreneurship?
I think the student body is pretty good at showing what is and isn’t going to be worthwhile, and with any academic offerings, you have to be responsive to changes in the field. Through our offerings, there will hopefully be an increased understanding of the distinction between social enterprises, social ventures, and social entrepreneurs, and I would hope our students recognize that these aren’t synonyms. We will continue to define these different roles of changemakers, while also drawing from the knowledge of other university courses.
This interview has been edited and condensed.