Three Experiential Learning Initiatives Emphasize Community Impact

University of Michigan, Santa Clara, and INSEAD immerse students in socially responsible, community-focused projects.

EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING is an imperative in most business programs today. At the same time, many schools want to teach their students early on that business can be a force for good in the global community. Thus, a growing number of business schools are developing experiential learning initiatives that show students how their skills and knowledge can be used to save lives and transform neighborhoods—close to home or across the globe. As the following three examples show, schools can take many approaches to introducing their students to the notion of business as a force for good:

Tackling food insecurity. During the Impact Challenge at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business in Ann Arbor, all incoming MBA students spend four days planning sustainable community-based business solutions. In 2016, during the sixth Impact Challenge, students focused on reducing food waste and improving access to healthy, affordable food in Detroit’s struggling communities.

Teams of MBA students partnered with 20 early-stage Detroit-based food enterprises to help them improve their businesses. In addition, the students experienced a daylong immersion in local neighborhoods, touring locations such as Detroit’s Eastern Market, Whole Foods Detroit, and more than ten businesses ranging from bakeries and breweries to farmers markets and food banks. They met with representatives of FoodPlus Detroit to learn more about the state of food waste and food access.

As a new addition to the Impact Challenge, the students launched crowdfunding campaigns to raise money to support the local healthy food community. They raised US$14,891 altogether, with half the money going to help FoodPlus Detroit build a new learning facility and the other half supporting the continuing education of participating food entrepreneurs.

At week’s end, five student teams pitched their solutions to Ross faculty and community leaders. Their ideas included a program that links urban farms with food vendors; a system that collects excess food from local markets and delivers it to low-income neighborhoods; and a “mobile meal” service that sells and delivers meals to residents and businesses and uses proceeds to buy food for those in need.

The winning team’s idea was “Missed Fit Foods,” which would source cosmetically damaged produce from farmers, and then use that produce to prepare packaged meals to be sold in high-end grocery stores. Their solution will be adopted by participating food entrepreneurs, with continuing support from the students and centers at Ross.

Challenge partners included General Motors, Deloitte, and PNC Bank, as well as local organizations such as FoodLab, a consortium of locally owned food entrepreneurs. Devita Davison, FoodLab’s co-director, points out that the university’s socially driven collaborations with local organizations help students connect the dots among resources, ideas, opportunities, and people. The Impact Challenge, she says, shows students and food entrepreneurs that “by collaborating, they can make a positive difference on both small and large scales."

To learn more about last year’s Impact Challenge at Ross, read “A Positive Force for Good” in the May/June 2016 issue of BizEd.

Showcasing social enterprise. For much of 2016, the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University in California partnered with 14 social entrepreneurs from countries such as Egypt, India, Kenya, Mexico, Myanmar, and Rwanda as part of its fourth annual Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) Accelerator. In that time, the participants worked with Silicon Valley executive mentors to develop their social enterprise business plans. In August, the entrepreneurs presented their business plans to impact investors during the invitation-only GSBI Investor Showcase.

The Miller Center has placed special emphasis on social enterprises focusing on empowering women and girls—especially those in rural areas affected by climate change. Of the 14 social enterprises in this year’s GSBI Accelerator cohort, eight are women-led or benefit women, and six focus on helping communities become resilient to climate change. Among the founders of these organizations were Fermín Reygadas Robles Gil who created Cántaro Azul, an organization focused on water quality and hygiene in Mexico; Tania Laden of Livelyhoods, which helps youth in Kenya find jobs; Alloysius Attah of Farmerline, which provides mobile technology to small farmers; and Katy Ashe, a Stanford grad who co-founded Noora Health to help poor families in India and the U.S. take control of their health.

“The goal of impact investing is to balance social, environmental, and financial goals,” says John Kohler, an impact-investing expert at the Miller Center. “Impact investment dovetails with our GSBI programs, which help social entrepreneurs apply proven business solutions to the problems of poverty, so that their enterprises can become more successful and affect exponentially more people.”

View entrepreneurs’ presentations at To read more about GSBI, see “Ethics & Enterprise” in the July/August 2014 issue of BizEd.

Developing the community. In September 2016, more than 500 MBA students from INSEAD completed two charity projects near the school’s campuses in Fontainebleau, France, and Singapore. The school partnered with Splash Projects, a U.K. firm that delivers experiential learning programs through real-life community projects. Students had only a few days to complete each project, kept secret until just before they started. In Singapore, 210 INSEAD students developed a piece of land at the Onesimus Ministry, which supports people from disadvantaged circumstances. Students created a garden for Onesimus clients, as well as a store where clients can sell fresh products to the public.

In France, 300 students created a special sensory trail, a small farm, and a garden for IME Villa Marie-Louise, a nonprofit that supports children with disabilities. Groups of about 70 students worked for one day and then created a virtual handover to the students who were continuing the work the next day.

The projects require steep learning curves but do a great deal to hone students’ leadership and managerial skills, says Simon Poole, the managing director of Splash Projects. “They are taken out of their comfort zone completely. There are no designated leaders, so they must work well together to get their parts completed. Communication is key. They have an additional incentive in that they are creating something which will make a difference to other peoples’ lives.”

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