Fostering Social Entrepreneurship across the University of North Carolina System

June/July
2015

In each of the last four years, the University of North Carolina (UNC) system office has hosted an annual Social Entrepreneurship Conference, at which teams of students from each of the system’s seventeen campuses present their ideas for new ventures to address pressing social issues, both local and global. Up to two graduate and two undergraduate teams from each campus may enter the system-wide competition, usually after completing a competitive application process at their own campuses. A panel of judges—entrepreneurs, philanthropists, venture capitalists, business owners, journalists, and nonprofit leaders from across the state—evaluates the presentations and awards monetary prizes for first, second, and third place in the undergraduate and graduate categories.

But choosing winners is just a small part of what the contest is about, says Leslie Boney, vice president for international, community, and economic engagement in the UNC General Administration. In fact, the whole conference is one small but important element of what the UNC system does to foster social entrepreneurship and community engagement throughout the state. “With engagement, there is a limited but important role for a system office, particularly when you have a diverse set of campuses,” Boney says. System leaders act primarily as conveners and cheerleaders, bringing together leaders in community engagement from different campuses to learn from each other, highlighting and rewarding positive examples across the system, and leading the effort to collect assessment data that will allow each campus to engage in systematic improvement.

“The goal is for all campuses to embrace engagement not as an adjunct activity performed on the side, but to find ways to integrate it into their day-to-day activity, looking actively for opportunities to add experiential learning to traditional academics, making community-based research a regular component of research activity, and recognizing that student and faculty engagement in the larger community can strengthen academics.”

Convening for Community Engagement

The Social Entrepreneurship Conference began in 2011, when a faculty member at Fayetteville State University told Boney he had the opportunity to bring in Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning social entrepreneur and microfinance pioneer, to give a speech about social business. “We talked about how we could use this opportunity as something more than a speech, and that’s where the idea for a conference came from,” Boney says. “If Yunus came, we didn’t want just administrators listening—we wanted to have present faculty and students and all the other people who would be inspired.”

Yunus’s talk also provided an occasion to address a larger issue many UNC campuses had been working on—how to better align students’ passions for changing the world with the applied learning experiences that employers are looking for in the college graduates they hire. System leaders were already familiar with research conducted by AAC&U finding that employers are more likely to hire college graduates who had completed an internship or some kind of applied project in their community—and that students, too, are looking for these opportunities. At the same time, communities across North Carolina, and across the country, were looking to their local universities for new ideas and support, as local governments, small businesses, and nonprofits were still operating on tight budgets in the wake of the 2008 recession.

“The occasion of having Yunus there—a person who had not only come up with ideas to change the world, but also found ways to do them that were self-sustaining over time—seemed like the perfect way to marry these challenges we were facing,” Boney says.

In light of these discussions, the UNC system office launched the first Social Entrepreneurship Conference, at which Yunus was the keynote speaker. The system office subsequently hosted two Engagement Summits—in 2011 and 2012—that built on some of the discussions at the conference, addressing strategies for developing more effective partnerships with surrounding communities and improving service-learning opportunities. After the second summit, the UNC Engagement Council was formed. The council is a permanent, standing committee of representatives from across the system that meets four times a year. It provides campus leaders with a network of peers to learn from. Going forward, the council also will advise the central administration on ways to improve the UNC Engagement Report, a new annual analysis of community engagement practices across the system.

The Engagement Council shares some overlap in membership with the Economic Transformation Council, a similar group that also meets quarterly, and both those councils have become deeply involved with the Social Entrepreneurship Conference. Each campus in the UNC system has a designated leader charged with promoting the conference and encouraging students, faculty, and staff to participate, and in many cases that leader is drawn from the councils.

Campus leaders typically make a big push to get students thinking about the contest in the spring so they will have time to form teams with like-minded peers; over the summer, teams can stay in communication and discuss what issues might need to be addressed in their communities. Projects address a range of topics under the umbrella of social entrepreneurship. Some take on environmental health concerns, as did a recent finalist that created a clean waste disposal system, while others might take a financial approach, such as a winner that created a “round up” donation system in which shoppers at grocery stores were encouraged to round their bills up to the nearest dollar amount and donate the change to a local food bank.

When students come back to campus in the fall, they refine their ideas and then seek out experts in the community, such as nonprofit leaders working on similar issues, who can help them further refine their ideas and validate that their team’s project is indeed addressing an issue of concern in the community. Then each student team seeks out a faculty or staff advisor. That initial advisor can confirm that the team’s project is on the right track, suggest revisions to the project, or recommend a different advisor who can better assist the students. Eventually students connect with an advisor with the right expertise, put the finishing touches on their idea, and then seek out assistance from one of North Carolina’s Small Business Technology Development Centers (SBTDCs), which are housed on the UNC campuses, to create a business plan. In the end, students have worked with three different groups—a community organization, at least one faculty or staff member, and a local SBTDC—by the time they finalize their project idea.

Connecting Students with Communities

Other leadership for campus-community engagement—and support for the Social Entrepreneurship Conference—comes from the twelve “entrepreneurship centers” in the system. The University of North Carolina includes diverse a range of universities—research intensive, public liberal arts, land grant—situated in an equally diverse range of communities, so each center takes a different approach. North Carolina State University, a large, research-intensive land-grant university in Raleigh, takes a cocurricular approach. The university recently opened the Audacity Factory, a new incubator space for businesses that also hosts workshops and “dinners with a purpose,” at which students can learn about topics in social business, meet with successful social entrepreneurs, and connect with new community ventures in which they can participate.

Winston-Salem State University, a smaller, historically black university, takes a broader approach to community engagement that includes both curricular and cocurricular elements. The university’s Center for Entrepreneurship provides training and support for faculty developing new entrepreneurship courses and helps connect faculty with potential community partners. But Notis Pagiavlas, interim senior associate dean of the college of leadership and founding director of the center, says this kind of faculty development, while beneficial, was not sufficient, especially in a community like Winston-Salem, NC, that is struggling economically. Pagiavlas led the effort to create the Enterprise Center, a separate community development corporation operated by the university.

The Enterprise Center is a sort of long-term business incubator for new businesses and nonprofits. The center provides office space, phone and internet service, and business advice to community “associates” who are launching new ventures, sometimes for several years. It’s been a boon for local entrepreneurs, and for students, too. Pagiavlas teaches some of his business courses at the Enterprise Center, pairing up students and community associates according to common interests. The associates benefit from the high-quality research the students can provide, and students get the chance to see what the actual needs of the community are and apply their knowledge toward addressing those needs. Students and associates alike benefit from the sustained nature of the work—the partnerships last for months, with weekly meetings between students and associates.

It’s not just business students, though, who conduct work with community associates. Some of the university’s health programs also hold classes at the Enterprise Center so that their students can work directly with community members, and horticulture students maintain an organic garden that provides a workplace for formerly incarcerated individuals who are reintegrating into the community.

Students from a broad range of disciplines also participate in the Social Entrepreneurship Conference, Pagiavlas says. The team he sponsored most recently had students from five different majors—“the business students brought the tactical knowledge, but a lot of good knowledge came from the arts and humanities students, too,” he notes. That range of knowledge and skills may give multidisciplinary teams a leg up in the competitive process teams must undergo. Most campuses have their own mini-competitions to select the teams that will represent the campus at the system-wide Social Entrepreneurship Conference, and presentation skills play a big role in both the campus- and system-level competitions. Students are not allowed to use PowerPoint at their presentations, Boney says, which puts a huge emphasis on oral and written communication skills as students draft their business plans and attempt to present their ideas to judges in a compelling way.

In fact, students’ development of such skills is one of the biggest benefits of the competition, Boney says. “To me, the biggest point of the competition is not that the idea launches, but that the team gets the experience of taking their big idea to change the world and finding a way to turn it into something self-sustaining. . . . If you’re going to suggest something fundamentally needs to be changed, you need a plan for how it can be changed, not just a desire. Taking an idea, developing it with a group of people, working with adults to shape it, being willing to listen and adjust, and then being willing to undertake the hard work to make it happen . . . all of that is almost more important than the hard work of the idea itself.

“There are ideas we celebrate, and that momentum can keep them going, but the reality of the competition is we might have forty teams, and only six winners [first, second, and third place winners, in undergraduate and graduate categories]. But we’re giving all these students the opportunity to work on a variety of skills under this organizing rubric of social entrepreneurship.”

Pagiavlas agrees, and extends that notion to the work students do at the Engagement Centers and at the Winston-Salem Enterprise Center. The real benefit is “the pride they get, the knowledge that this is not just ‘book stuff,’ but that this is helping my community—after a while they can see the effects of their work in the Enterprise Center. The wisdom that comes from helping someone else is the real benefit, to engage with them and realize that this work is bigger than any single person.”

Assessing Engagement Outcomes

Measuring just how students are learning is one more thing that the system office can do to support community engagement on campuses. A new UNC Engagement Report looks at indicators of engagement across all campuses, categorized under the fields of teaching, research, and service. That was an important element, Boney says—“we didn’t want to lump it all as service.”

The assessment efforts are still young, but they have provided some baseline data—data particular to UNC’s campuses—to work from. Those data offer a starting point from which to recognize exceptional work in community engagement. UNC now offers a system-wide public service award for faculty, and some campuses are modifying tenure and promotion processes to reward faculty who have conducted applied research in their communities.

“The long-term goal, of course, is to be able to answer the broader questions about engagement,” Boney says. “Does our participation have any meaningful impact on the people and communities we engage with? What sort of engagement is most meaningful to students, faculty, and community members? How does engagement impact student learning outcomes?” There’s plenty of research about how engagement can affect learning, he says, but “we need to document what works and doesn’t work in our system.”

Read more about social entrepreneurship and community engagement efforts across the UNC system at their community engagement web page. You can also find more resources for community engagement at AAC&U’s civic learning resource pages. You can also read about AAC&U's LEAP Challenge, which calls on colleges and universities to engage students in signature work that will prepare them to integrate and apply their learning to a significant project.

Institution: 
University of North Carolina system