Innovations Through Entrepreneurship

Four schools have designed entrepreneurial initiatives that are changing lives—both locally and around the world.
Innovations Through Entrepreneurship


THE INNOVATION: The Social Economic Engagement Program (SEEP), a co-curricular program that enables MBA students to work with community organizations on strategic projects.

THE SITUATION: Through SEEP, MBA students at UQ have a chance to apply their professional expertise and classroom learning to real-life projects that benefit not-for-profits and community organizations. In the past, SEEP projects have included a growth strategy and succession plan for OzHarvest, which gathers excess food and redistributes it to other charities; a feasibility study for RETREDS, a recycling project; a fundraising and community awareness strategy for the Queensland Branch of Save the Children; and a business plan for Mummy’s Wish, geared toward families where mothers have cancer.

In the past five years, 170 MBA students have worked on 45 projects for about 35 different organizations, says associate professor Neil Paulsen, director of SEEP. They work in teams of three to five students each; some students work on multiple projects. SEEP finds new projects mainly through word-of-mouth, including referrals from alumni working with organizations with social missions.

One recent project came about when students began working with the Terrace Timor Network (TTN), a nonprofit organization that supports long-term independence in TimorLeste, a small country in southeast Asia. Their goal was to help coffee farmers determine whether vanilla—which can be grown at the base of existing coffee trees—would be a viable and profitable secondary crop and, if so, to create an implementation and marketing plan. Students also had broader goals: to break the poverty cycle of coffee farmers and support sustainable economic development in the region by helping to launch businesses that would not need long-term external funding.

Operating mostly autonomously, six students worked with TTN leaders over four months, visiting Timor-Leste to observe and interview farmers and other members of the community. Ultimately the student team developed the Vanilla Roadmap, a five-year strategy that would allow farmers to bring a vanilla crop to harvest in a timeframe that would supplement existing coffee production. The report considered planting, harvesting, production, training, markets, feasibility, and risk.

Today, the TTN’s Vanilla Coordinator is working with local farmers to implement the Vanilla Roadmap. The group has engaged experienced vanilla harvesters to train the coffee farmers, and two area farmers are currently growing crops. That number is expected to expand as additional farmers have expressed interest in being part of the pilot program.

School officials believe SEEP is having an equally great impact on the students themselves. To prove it, the school is gathering longitudinal data on students to learn how, and to what extent, SEEP projects are helping students improve their empathy, global perspective, self-awareness, resilience, and practical skills. In addition, the school has developed a similar program for undergraduate students, in which MBA students mentor undergrad teams completing their own SEEP projects.

Read about the SEEP program at UQ Business School


THE INNOVATION: Northwest Aboriginal Canadian Entrepreneurs (NW-ACE), a partnership between the Gustavson School and Tribal Resources Investment Corporation.

THE SITUATION: Innovation and social responsibility are two of the main pillars of the Gustavson School of Business; the school also specializes in entrepreneurship in both teaching and research. It combined these focus areas to create the NW-ACE program as a way to increase the school’s engagement with indigenous communities by teaching aboriginal students to become entrepreneurs.

Aboriginal businesses and communities across Canada hold the key to revitalizing regional economies and promoting prosperity on local, provincial, and national scales,” says Brent Mainprize, a teaching professor of entrepreneurship and director of the NW-ACE program.

The program not only targets students of aboriginal ancestry who reside in northwest British Columbia, but also delivers its content on-site, rather than requiring aboriginal students to leave their rural communities.As much as possible, classes are held at community cultural centers, youth centers, or at indigenous-owned businesses. All classes host a maximum of 18 students ranging in age from 18 to 54. Programs are funded through provincial and federal programs, and students do not pay tuition.

While most entrepreneurship courses focus on business plans and feasibility reports, says Mainprize, NW-ACE helps students hone specific skills such as identifying opportunities, negotiating, networking, selling, and strategic planning. The working hypothesis is that “incorporating aboriginal culture and symbols into the entrepreneurship curriculum enhances student learning,” says Mainprize. In fact, the Gustavson School worked closely with aboriginal leaders and artists to incorporate visual images of an eagle and salmon into illustrated concepts of entrepreneurship.

The program begins with a nine-week in-class component, which is followed by a 12-week mentorship phase that draws mentors from the community as much as possible. While coordinators prefer that participants meet face-toface, students and mentors connect via Skype and phone when necessary.

Since its launch in Prince Rupert in May 2013, NW-ACE has been highly successful—enough so that the school is planning to expand to other parts of the province. The program also has become an important link between the university and the larger community. It has led to offshoot programs such as the NW Canadian Aboriginal Management Program, which works with the employees of aboriginal financial institutions and managers of villages and bands of First Nation people.

In addition, the program has been a catalyst for new business ideas and employment opportunities. As of February 2016, 91 students have graduated from the first six cohorts of the program. At that time, 49 percent were completing their business plans, 27 percent were employed in the field of their business plans, and 15 percent were pursuing additional education.

In addition, 23 percent have launched new businesses, including Aboriginal Press. Founded by Noah Guno, a member of the Nisga’a First Nation, the press provides news and lifestyle articles from an aboriginal perspective and acts as a conduit for information and opportunities to people of northwestern British Columbia. For success stories like this one and others, NW-ACE received the Partnership and Collaboration Visionary Award from the Industry Council for Aboriginal Business in 2014.

Read about NW-ACE. Learn more about the Aboriginal Canadian Entrepreneurs Program (ACE).


THE INNOVATION: The Frontier Market Scouts program, which trains students for careers in social enterprise management and responsible investing.

THE SITUATION: In 2010, thought leaders at a social impact investment summit identified the need for a program that would provide training for entrepreneurs in emerging markets. The focus would be on the “missing middle,” those social enterprise ventures that are too large to receive microfinance funds but too small to attract traditional venture funding.

In 2011, MIIS launched Frontier Market Scouts (FMS), intended to connect social impact investors with entrepreneurs who had business models but who needed help polishing business plans, improving operations, and connecting to the right networks. FMS provides intensive two-week certificate training sessions that include lectures, creative projects, and experiential learning opportunities that focus on early-stage social venture and impact investing management.

Much of the currency and practicality of the program is delivered by leading practitioners, seasoned entrepreneurs, and impact investors,” says Yuwei Shi, professor at MIIS’ Graduate School of International Policy and Management and director of research at the Center for Social Impact Learning. “For instance, faculty of the current program include principals and senior managers from the Cordes Foundation, the Calvert Foundation, the Omidyar Network, Accion Venture Labs, First Colorado Capital, Pi Investments, and Unreasonable Institute. The practitioner faculty also participate in curricular development.”

Students who complete the training can become candidates for two- to 12-month fellowships in global hot spots for social enterprise, with the school facilitating paid internships. “Although we have only a modest fund for limited scholarships, our fellows have covered at least a significant part of their total expense through paid internships,” says Shi. Of the 20 students in the first class, ten went on to six-month fellowship placements with partner organizations in India, Nigeria, Vietnam, and Tanzania.

Since its launch, the program has trained more than 300 professionals and served more than 100 different social enterprises in 20 countries. Training sessions have been offered in Monterey; Salt Lake City, Utah; Washington, D.C.; and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Plans are underway to continue to expand globally and offer location-based training in other key regions for social enterprise development. For these off-campus training sessions, the school chooses “cities that are hot spots for impact investors, who in turn attract social entrepreneurs,” says Shi.

The success of FMS also has led to curriculum innovations within the school’s MBA degree. In the fall of 2015, MIIS launched the Fisher MBA in global impact management, which became the flagship program for the school’s new Center for Social Impact Learning. The global impact MBA includes an emphasis on social enterprise and finance as one of three key tracks. Students in this track may use the FMS fellowship as a basis for a field report capstone experience. In 2013, FMS won a Cordes Innovation Award from AshokaU. This year, it was honored with the Cordes Innovation Hall of Fame Award from AshokaU.

Read more about the Frontier Market Scouts.


THE INNOVATION: A recycling project that turns discarded coconut shells into salable charcoal.

THE SITUATION: The coconut trade is the fourth-largest industry in Malaysia. While vendors use the juice of the coconuts to create products such as coconut milk and coconut drinks, they usually just discard the shells. However, the shells can be sold to factories for RM72 (about US$18) per metric ton—or they can be recycled into charcoal.

In 2014, the coconut industry became the focus of a group of students from the UUM branch of Enactus, an international nonprofit that brings together students, academics, and business leaders who use entrepreneurship to improve the quality of life for people in need. About 80 UUM students participate annually in the extracurricular activity. For this project, students surveyed coconut vendors in nearby small towns and learned that most of them simply burn the shells or leave them to rot on the ground.

To prove it was feasible to make charcoal from the shells, the students formed a company called Co&Coal. To support their efforts, they procured a Sustainable Development Grant worth approximately US$2,000 from Shell Malaysia, as well as grants worth about $500 each from Global Cycle and Perfectwood Resort Builder, both UUM Enactus sponsors. UUM also covered many of the students’ expenses.

Ten students spent five months conducting experiments in an open space on UUM’s Agrofarm, using discarded shells that vendors provided for free. They conducted their experiments in three steps. First, they placed the shells in a small barrel and heated them for two hours over a larger barrel filled with hot wood scraps. They ground down the resulting charcoal, using a machine they had purchased with their grant money for the equivalent of $175. The finely ground charcoal was placed in a special mold that shaped it into a solid cylindrical tube about 6 inches tall and 1.5 inches in diameter. Then the charcoal was left to dry for three days.

Because the best coconut charcoal emits very little smoke, the students conducted additional tests to make sure their products were high-quality. Pieces of charcoal that passed the stringent smoke test were packed into one-kilogram packets that could be sold for RM10 (US$2.50) per pack.

Throughout the process, students collaborated with a micro-entrepreneur named En Shukri, a coconut seller with plenty of shells at his disposal. For proof of Co&Coal’s impact on the community, the students only need to point to Shukri. He gained valuable entrepreneurial skills while increasing his monthly income from RM72 (US$18) to RM440 (US$110). He joined with five partners to gain a continual supply of raw materials and has begun producing 132 kilograms of charcoal a month.

The impact on students was equally striking. Not only did they gain deep knowledge in a specialized industry, they enhanced their skills in the areas of entrepreneurship, teamwork, leadership, and communication. They also developed the confidence to make presentations to big corporations. Finally, by reclaiming waste and turning it into a salable product, they contributed to sustainability in their corner of the world. Students plan to remain involved with Co&Coal as long as they have a supply of shells, the participation of entrepreneurs, and a market demand for the project.

Learn more about Enactus and Shell’s sustainability grants in Malaysia.