Q&A: Robyn Fehrman on Social Entrepreneurship

Robyn Fehrman is the Director of Programs for the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship (CASE) at the Fuqua School of Business. In this Q&A, she discusses the definition, mission, challenges and successes of social entrepreneurship.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about your role at CASE?

A: We have three buckets of work at CASE- we work with MBA students, we work with practitioners in the field, and we conduct research and engage in thought leadership; my work touches all three of those buckets. In my role as the director of programs at CASE, I help think through our overarching strategy for engaging with the broader social entrepreneurship ecosystem and determining what different levers we can pull at CASE in order to move that work forward. A large part of my work has also been to help manage the Social Entrepreneurship Accelerator at Duke (SEAD), which is a USAID-funded multi-disciplinary accelerator for global health innovations in India and East Africa.

Q: How do you define social entrepreneurship?

A: Our co-founder Greg Dees, often referred to as the “father of social entrepreneurship” within academic circles, wrote a paper called “The Meaning of Social Entrepreneurship” in which he outlines a five-point definition. I encourage you to read it, but the shorthand would be “the ways in which we use business principles, market forces and innovation to solve big social problems”. We think of social entrepreneurship very broadly, beyond just starting a venture that earns revenue but also has a social impact.

We need extremely resilient leaders who are able to face challenges, learn from them and get back up and start again; who are able to fail and then fail better; who can really stick with it for the long haul and have the well of resilience and leadership to stick with big problems for a long time.

Q: You mentioned SEAD. Is there a particular project that stands out to you as a great example of social entrepreneurship?

A: There have been 25 innovators and they are all the most inspiring leaders (you can read profiles on all of them here). ZanaAfrica is really leading in the menstrual health space, helping to make menstrual hygiene products truly available for girls so that they can go to school when they have their periods, because for too many girls it’s a reason that they are staying at home instead of going to school and engaging in their communities because they can’t afford menstrual hygiene products. ZanaAfrica produces a low-cost girl-friendly product and they’ve been really innovative in how they talk about it and think about it and how they engage girls themselves in the design and marketing of all of their work.

Q: I’m curious about that partnership piece- how are projects like these able to incorporate the community voice?

A: At the heart of our teaching on social entrepreneurship, we really believe in accountability to stakeholders- the people that we’re serving, the clients that we are working with, the “customers” to use business language. We want to keep that perspective at the center and have that perspective really drive the work. We see that as absolutely fundamental to actually creating positive change.

Q: How has your background in the nonprofit sector informed your work at CASE?

A: At CASE, we ground our teaching in developing the mindsets, skills and habits that we think all social impact leaders need to have in order to make a positive impact on the world. In other words, beyond good general management, what are the things that people who are working with our thorniest challenges need to have in order to leverage their best for transformation out in the world? We know that those extraordinary leaders will go on to work in places with all different types of governance models- it might be a nonprofit, it might be a for-profit social enterprise, it might be a hybrid, it might be government. We believe that social impact leaders who are the most successful have tri-sector leadership skills- they’re able to work and move within all sectors, to be that translator and leverage the strengths of all three different sectors. Since I’d worked in the nonprofit sector exclusively for about 20 years prior to coming to CASE, I often work with both MBA students and with practitioners out in the field to help them understand the best practices within the nonprofit sector.  CASE partners with Fuqua to run the Fuqua on Board program, which allows MBA students to serve as non-voting board fellows with Durham nonprofit organizations. My nonprofit background helps those students make meaning of what they’re experiencing on nonprofit boards and helps us to think about the curriculum we need to provide them before they serve on a board and during their board service to help ensure that they’ve got those mindsets, skills and habits that they’re going to need to actually contribute, as well as learn.

Q: What are some of the challenges that you’re seeing for students getting involved in social entrepreneurship?

A: Although Fuqua is very committed to business as a force for social good, our students who are committed to working in social impact can sometimes find navigating business school challenging because their paths aren’t as clearly defined as those of their peers. Since the nonprofit sector and the for-profit social enterprise sector don’t follow the same recruiting patterns as major companies and consulting firms, the students that want to have their career be in social impact often have to carve their own unique paths, with support from those of us at CASE and the Career Management Center. Another challenge is that our students have to weigh the salaries that are offered within the social impact space against what they have just paid for their MBA. We do offer a loan assistance program to students who choose to work in the nonprofit or government sectors following graduation that can help pay back a portion of their loans, but those are very real financial decisions that students have to make. A third challenge, and this is true not just of our students but of everyone who’s working in the social sector, is cultivating the ongoing resilience that is needed to work on the toughest issues around the world. We work hard to measure the impact of our work, but it’s not easy to quantify, results are not always as clear-cut, and the path is often not linear. We need extremely resilient leaders who are able to face challenges, learn from them and get back up and start again; who are able to fail and then fail better; who can really stick with it for the long haul and have the well of resilience and leadership to stick with big problems for a long time.

Q: I have seen the fields of social entrepreneurship and civic engagement sometimes presented as being a bit at odds with one another. What do you see as the relationship between the two, and what can each field learn from the other?

A: If we define social entrepreneurship very narrowly as “the hero social entrepreneur” who is this one magical founder who’s got this brilliant idea that supposedly no one has ever had before to go out and save the world, as opposed to civic engagement, which is much more about engaging full communities, then I can see the opposition, but that’s not how we define social entrepreneurship. I think that’s an extremely narrow and sometimes harmful definition of social entrepreneurship and at Duke we define it much more broadly than that. I think of civic engagement as an extremely broad subject, of which we’re a part. I think of civic engagement in terms of being informed citizens, being active and engaged citizens, voting, knowing our community and finding ways to tap into our community, being involved in our civic institutions- I think all of those things are critically important when it comes to civic engagement, and we want students to develop skills in all of those areas.

Q: What’s the one thing that you want the Duke community, if they’re not familiar with your office, to know about CASE?

A: The thing that I want the rest of Duke to know is that, while we teach MBA students, our services have much broader reach beyond just MBA students and the students at Fuqua. We work with practitioners all around the world and we’re trying to surface best practices that have implications for nonprofits and for-profit social enterprises everywhere. In particular, we are engaged in a project called Scaling Pathways with the Innovation Investment Alliance, which is a partnership between the Skoll Foundation and USAID and Mercy Corps, looking at eight different social enterprises around the world and how they have scaled their impact. We produced a paper called Pivoting to Impact and three in-depth case studies on global enterprises that are making a tremendous impact and what can we all learn from them.