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Students on a (Social) Mission

Social Entrepreneurship Initiative coordinator Elizabeth Benefield is helping Charles Etoroma (Mechanical Engineering ‘15) with his mission-driven project.

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The college’s new Social Entrepreneurship Initiative helps students meet global issues head-on.

For decades the sole measure of a business’s success was its economic bottom line. Today, however, more companies and business leaders are looking for results beyond profit  margins, and the next generation of students is taking note.

This movement, called social entrepreneurship, advocates for business models based on finding  innovative solutions to social problems. While the typical entrepreneur is more focused on profits and return on investment, social entrepreneurs take into account the social, cultural and environmental returns to society.

“Every year we’re seeing students who want to enter careers that make a larger difference in the world,” says Elizabeth Benefield, program coordinator for NC State’s Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, housed in the college’s Institute for Nonprofit Research, Education and Engagement. “To them, it’s about solving problems they are passionate about, not just bringing home a paycheck. I have students in my office every week who are looking at challenges in the world and trying to find innovative ways to address them. That’s why we’re here.”

The Social Entrepreneurship Initiative launched in the fall of 2013 and is quickly attracting interest throughout the university. Through speaker series, hands-on workshops, internship opportunities and mentoring, the initiative hopes to provide resources to students who want to translate their academic skills and interests into careers that can make a difference in the lives of people around the world.
Most universities that offer programs in social entrepreneurship house them within their business schools and management programs. NC State’s initiative is unique in that it was placed within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, with the intention of making it easily accessible to students from every discipline on campus. “We want to be the connective tissue that runs through all programs and colleges, providing students with the tools they need to translate innovative ideas into purposeful projects and careers,” says Benefield.

Charles Etoroma, a senior in mechanical engineering, wants to create an apparel line that features inspirational quotes from people who have various illnesses. Proceeds from sales of the products would be contributed to charitable organizations. “I’m interested in doing something in the fashion design business, but I want to create a social mission behind it,” he says. “I want to partner with local nonprofits who are doing such good work in the community. My project involves a lot of different disciplines, and this office is helping me navigate all that.”

Benefield also recently mentored a group of chemical engineering students who are developing a nail polish that changes colors when it comes into contact with a date rape drug. “They are passionate about solving a real problem on college campuses — sexual assault — and they want to use their talents and knowledge in engineering to find a solution,” she says. “We shared resources with them about alternative funding and business models that would allow them to keep their social mission intact, instead of  perhaps getting their idea hijacked within a solely profit-making structure.”

The Social Entrepreneurship Initiative is still in its infancy, explains Benefield. As the program and its funding grow, so will its offerings. Currently, the initiative is hosting a monthly pop-up lecture series in the Entrepreneurship Initiative’s Garage, NC State’s business creation and prototyping space for students who have a passion for entrepreneurship. The lectures will cover rotating topics such as crowdsourcing, sustainability, the “triple bottom line” and alternative business funding models. The initiative is also participating in a Dinners With Purpose series with NC State’s Institute for Emerging Issues, where top social entrepreneurs from around the country will share insights with students and allow for discussion and idea swapping.

“One of our top funding priorities is to establish a ‘social entrepreneur in residence’ who will be on campus for a year to teach classes, work with the career services office, mentor students and provide a link to various community resources,” says Benefield. “Having a high-caliber professional with a background in social entrepreneurship will be so beneficial to our students.

“We also hope our college alumni will get involved with the program, not just by offering financial support but also by coming to campus and sharing their experiences with students and providing them with support and connections once they graduate,” she says. “Alumni who are 10 to 15 years removed from their time at NC State and have had success in their careers have a great message they can share with students: that it is possible to have business success while making a difference in the world. You don’t have to choose one or the other.”

Alumni interested in getting involved with the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative are invited to contact
the program at socentprogram@ncsu.edu.

By Caroline Barnhill

This article first appeared in the college’s Accolades 2015 magazine.