The Business of Giving Back

Harvard’s pioneers in the field of social enterprise are blending finance and philanthropy

Bob Marley immortally said, “Don’t gain the world and lose your soul.” For most Harvardians, this piece of golden advice has been ignored for the siren call of the corporate world and its fat paychecks. However, with Wall Street in shambles and seniors desperately clawing for anything come graduation besides moving back into their parents’ basements, there seems to be a move away from the traditional I-Banking or consulting route toward the nobler frontier of social enterprise. Is this just a momentary fad that will fade into obscurity much like the Segway or going to class? Or is it possible that students are finally heeding Bob’s wise words?

OFF THE TRACK

William F. Weingarten, ’11 and Petch Jirapinyo, ’11, Co-presidents of a Harvard student-run nonprofit, The Cambridge Microfinance Initiative (CMi), have noted that student interest in joining CMi has significantly increased in the last year. Though the group cannot directly offer loans to clients, CMi works with small business owners in the community to develop advertising strategies and business plans to increase profits. Weingarten and Jirapinyo claim that one of the most rewarding aspects of CMi is the opportunity to interact with members of the Cambridge community, including visible residents like the owner of the bookstand on Mass. Ave.

However, members have mixed reasons for joining CMi. According to Jirapinyo, only half of members appear headed in a financial track. ““Most people who join are interested in social enterprise. After graduating from CMi, many of our members go into microfinance and other social enterprises. The rest might assume more traditional career paths, including consulting and finance,” said Jirapinyo.

Both Jirapinyo and Weingarten are considering following a more traditional tech or consulting career route after college, but due to positive experiences garnered from CMi, they both hope to eventually return to the world of microfinance. “Even for people that try to go down the consulting path, if you’re going to get that sort of experience, then it makes sense to do it in a way that helps people,” said Weingarten.

On the international scene, Sebastien D.J. Arnold, ’10 and Simon Mahler ’10, are heading A Drop in the Ocean (ADITO), another microfinance organization that sends students to summer internships around the world in places like South America and Cambodia.

“Our main focus is to give Harvard students an opportunity to explore the world of microfinance, get a hands-on experience and see what the real world problems are, and to gain a better appreciation of it,” said Mahler.

According to Arnold and Mahler, members of ADITO are more interested in the experience of working in developing countries rather than for the ultimate goal of joining the consulting world. However, for Mahler, ADITO actually ended up encouraging him to consider the world of consulting when he otherwise may not have. Mahler stated that the experience gained from microfinance, such as preparing business plans for non-profits, is essentially what consulting entailed. “ADITO is a great opportunity for people not completely convinced about what they want to do, and explore things they may not have thought about before college.”

Likewise, for Arnold, ADITO encouraged him to seriously consider the consulting world. “Essentially what I’ve been doing is giving advice to companies, and that is what consulting does,” he said.

CHANGE FOR A DOLLAR

In addition to microfinance groups, Havardians are also taking on the challenge of starting up their own social enterprise foundations.

Jason Shah, ’11, is the founder of INeedAPencil.com, the winner of the McKinley Family Grant in Social Enterprise in the most recent I3 Harvard College Innovation Challenge. Shah has been working on INeedAPencil.com, which offers high school students free SAT online prep courses, since his senior year of high school. For Shah, his for-profit is something he intends to take on full-time after graduation. Shah doesn’t consider social enterprise as a new trend but something that’s always been around without the label.

“Social enterprise is a unique hybrid between learning practical business skills and effecting real social change,” said Shah, “For the interns this summer, working for INeedAPencil gave them the chance to work on a business plan […] But they also got the same rewarding sense that people get from volunteering. It’s a genuinely unique experience.”

For Christopher W. Higgins, ’11, founder of Friends of New Hope Ministries, social enterprise has become his life’s passion.

“There’s a real ethic of volunteerism in our generation. I’m not sure where this comes from, but I’m sure I’m not the only person interested in this at Harvard,” he said. Higgins spent two months abroad teaching English in Uganda for New Hope Ministries, an NGO founded and run entirely by Ugandans that cares for orphans and vulnerable children. Noticing a severe lack of funding resources, Higgins returned to the States in hopes of setting up a financial network to support the foundation.

“NGOs [and] charities, ought to be run like businesses, [with] the exception that the profit goes to help people,” said Higgins. “[But] there’s a tendency sometimes when you’re talking about charity to accept less than perfect results because our intentions are good. But I think at the end of the day this does a disservice to the people we’re trying to help. “

As an ROTC cadet, Higgins aspires to continue Friends of New Hope Ministries full time after he finishes his time in the army. He believes that, in the end, those who aspire to pursue social enterprise need to take on the job full-time.

“I don’t think you can make it work where people have a career and do social enterprise on the side,” said Higgins. “If you do a so-so job, oftentimes you can do more harm than good.”

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