Social Entrepreneurship Meets Anthropology

In the Fall of 2010 I took a course called “The Enlightened Entrepreneur,” a fieldwork intensive social entrepreneurship course at Babson College, and below is a reflection on my experience in this entrepreneurship course, and how anthropology’s fieldwork information gathering process is similar to the user-oriented design methodologies employed in Olin Courses in product and service development contexts.

Reflection

I struggled last spring to decide what course I should take at Babson, since my interest in entrepreneurship follows a very specific path of application  to product design and development, as well as organizational project management and structure since these two topics are highly relevant to the work I expect to do after graduation. There are no courses specific to these interests that I found at Babson, so I decided to find a social entrepreneurship course, since most if not all the startups I’ve been a part of have this as a central part of their mission or purpose. As it turns out, while this course was not necessarily directly applicable to the first two interests I described, the team and project structure of the course, in addition to the user-centric research focus made this course one of the most interesting extensions of the work I’ve done for my major. My interpretation of this final reflection assignment is that I should address the following three areas: individual perspective and learning, the teaming aspect of the course, and finally high level observations about the course’s content and structure.

As I mentioned above, this course was very interesting to me because of the ways it intersects with the work I’ve done at Olin, and I’m very grateful for several aspects of the course which contributed to this. I’ve worked on several socially minded ventures in the past, and the academic exposure to the topic of social entrepreneurship was helpful for me as I think about what to do upon graduation with the social venture I’ve worked on for several years called Alight Learning.

Another intersection point that this course has with my engineering coursework has to do with the user-centric design methodology Olin teaches, which is very similar to the type of fieldwork done by anthropologists in many ways. Seeing how this kind of human approach to problem solving in the business context was helpful as a way to see how this same design methodology applies not only to products and services, but also to the organizations and structures that deliver these products or services. Olin has a course called User-Oriented Collaborative Design (UOCD) where we focus on a specific user group, learn about their needs and values, delve into possible solutions for these needs given their values, engage in a co-design experience with them and deliver at the end of the semester a conceptual model of a possible product for this user group. In many ways this course for me was similar to the UOCD experience except instead of being about a specific user group we worked at length with an organization, Pine Street Inn, which has not only many people, but also many services, environments, and organization needs. While I admit this is an odd connection to make or force, I found that this is one of the biggest reasons I enjoyed the course.

Building off the two intersections points I’ve mentioned already (social venture context & UOCD course), the open-ended personal exploration this course has built in was also a great thing to have. I’ve done a lot of work with education in the past, and while I did want to mostly avoid that topic since I’ve done so much of it, I appreciated that I was able to explore a topic that was not directly about education, but was easily relatable to this topic, since it is after all, “what keeps me up at night.” My independent research was social psychology readings about the models of housing that homeless shelters are based around. The academic exposure to this field was interesting, since I’d never done this kind of reading despite my interest in psychology, and the content of the papers was centered around how to design housing organizations in a way that considers the needs of the people receiving the services. These two aspects of my personal research project each relate in their own way to the first two reasons I’ve highlighted I loved the course. In my experience the best academic experiences are the ones that connect to themselves and other experiences in a variety of different ways, and this is why I decided to mention the three “intersections” above.

Of course, all of these intersections between and across academic disciplines, incorporation of student passions into coursework, and application of work to previous coursework and experiences in general would all be more noteworthy if it weren’t for how noteworthy my team experience was this semester. At Olin, was with this course, most project teams are selected based on interests and who people would like to work with, but I have to say that this team may be one of the best I’ve worked with in my five years of time at Olin.  The teamwork experience I had this semester eclipses even all of the reasons I enjoyed the course that I’ve already described. I found each and every member of my team to be great to work with, and I wouldn’t have learned nearly as much about Pine Street Inn if it weren’t for their genuine interest in learning as much as they could about Pine Street Inn. At one extreme I could see how this course could easily become an organization fact finding mission depending on your team’s interest in the topic, but the way our group worked out I learned as much in our debrief meetings, discussions, and travel time together as I did while at Pine Street Inn. Naturally the purpose of most team based course experiences is to amplify the individual learning you would have made by learning from the other members of your team, though unfortunately many times team experiences are such that part of the team does a majority of the work and the other part of the team contributes very little. Even from my best team experiences at Olin, few can match the way each team member was willing and eager to put in their fair share of great work!

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