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Social Enterprise: MBAs Drive Innovation Through Social Entrepreneurship

MBAs driving social innovation by launching their own ventures

Tue Dec 8 2015

Mike Quinn is democratizing finance. The social entrepreneur, and Oxford Saïd MBA, provides money transfer to the roughly 80% of Africans who have access to mobile phones but have no bank account.

His social venture, Zoona, serves one million customers every three months that have sent and received $780 million in money transfers. 1,200 agents and “tellers” deliver mobile banking from pop-up booths spanning southern Africa, from Zambia to Malawi.

“We would like to prove that you can build a sustainable business in Africa that also has a positive impact and can generate significant returns for investors,” says Mike, Zoona’s CEO, whose parents mortgaged their retirement home to lend him $100,000 to launch the business.   

He founded Zoona in 2009 and the Cape Town based company has grown to have 120 employees and has raised $5 million in venture capital from investors including the Deutsche Bank Foundation.

A rival to the landmark mobile money transfer and payment service M-Pesa, Zoona is enabling thousands of African entrepreneurs to make money as mediators. Tech has revolutionized access to finance for millions.

“I believe Africa will look very different in 20 years because of how technology is transforming the landscape,” says Mike, who graduated from Saïd Business School in 2008.

As business warms to the idea of balancing profit with people and planet, the world’s top schools are pumping out managers keen to champion the triple bottom line. But with precious few corporations truly embracing social enterprise, business school students are driving social innovation by launching their own ventures.

“Students think they can have a big contribution to society by setting up their own social companies,” says Ignasi Carreras, director of the Institute for Social Innovation at ESADE Business School. As many as 40% of students at elite business schools are launching start-ups — although mostly on the side of corporate careers. “All of those people are saying: Why not social entrepreneurship?”

Paola Lozoya, an ESADE MBA student, co-founded social impact seeking start-up SOMOS, which helps provide reliable childhood education to the 100 million children globally who it estimates do not have access to it. 


SOMOS developed a curriculum based on 15 minutes of activities designed by child development experts and psychologists, which can be delivered to mobile devices.

“Many companies are switching to more socially and environmentally friendly business models, either because they truly believe in that, or just as a strategy to attract more customers,” says Paola. “If they find better and more socially and environmentally friendly ways to solve problems, I think we will win as a society.”

SOMOS was a finalist in this year’s Hult Prize, the world’s largest social entrepreneurship competition that is backed by former US president Bill Clinton.

Ahmad Ashkar, the Hult International Business School MBA who founded the competition, believes this generation of students are increasingly keen to pursue work that can have a positive impact on society. “Right now it’s in the best interests of any organization to see social impact come into their business,” Ahmad says.

Yet, says Daniela Papi-Thornton, deputy director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford Saïd, there is a false dichotomy that makes it seem like everyone needs to be a business founder to have an impact on society.

“Often, social entrepreneurs are the ones who catalyze changes across public, private, and community networks,” she says. “But they aren’t lone heroes…. We need entrepreneurial thinkers in all roles across society.”

Jeff Reid, founding director of the Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative, argues that there is a problem with the definition of “social enterprise”.

“We do have a lot of students interested in finding a way to use their MBA and entrepreneurial skills to solve problems in the world,” he says. But many of these are for-profit ventures pursing social goals. “Most entrepreneurs will tell you they are doing something good for society,” he says. “If we categorize some as social entrepreneurs, what are the rest of them?”

Nonetheless Ben Mangan, executive director at UC Berkeley Haas School’s Center for Social Sector Leadership, says: “We’re seeing more and more elite business schools grads who are interested in starting their own social ventures.”

It was Typhoon Haiyan, which killed 2,000 people and displaced 550,000 when it swept through the Philippines in 2013, that inspired Justin Garrido to become a social entrepreneur.

He launched Social Project.PH, which developed housing solutions for the survivors of the natural disaster.

“Seeing the vast social challenges like poverty really struck me hard,” says the Melbourne Business School MBA. “There is a greater discrepancy between rich and poor.”


But by providing a channel for social enterprises to a global marketplace, he believes the for-profit venture can be a leader for others to follow. “I envision the Philippines being a source of social brands and a model for social enterprise globally,” he says.

His MBA classmates from different countries and disciplines reviewed and critiqued his business plan, helping the entrepreneur to start up. Business schools are increasingly realizing they have a responsibility to champion both profit and purpose.

“We truly believe that business should make a difference in the lives of others — not just the bottom line,” says Erin Worsham, director of social entrepreneurship at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business.

INSEAD professor Subi Rangan, whose research explores how enterprises are reconciling performance with social goals, says this is key for business schools to remain relevant.

“We need to balance present with future, humanity with nature, and market with society,” he says. 

For Janet Bollo, it was this shift that inspired her to pursue a start-up with impact. “When I came to business school, it shifted my thinking. My mind was open to new ideas and social entrepreneurship made sense to me,” Janet says.

The Aston Business School MBA launched Step Up Social Enterprise, a venture that seeks to deal with the youth unemployment dilemma in Kenya by providing entrepreneurial and leadership skills training for the nation’s youth.  

“What they need are the skills and habits necessary to succeed in the modern economy, and the opportunity to make use of them,” Janet says.