Andrea Wong ’18BUS ’18JRN

Andrea Wong ’18BUS ’18JRN

Student Diary: Things I Didn’t Know I’d Learn at the Social Enterprise Conference

I admit I was a little nervous about participating in the 2017 Social Enterprise Conference. I’ve never worked at a nonprofit, and I’ve never played a material role in any social change organization. Even though I have a keen interest in international development and effective altruism, my level of engagement with the world of doing good was limited to activities like volunteering at soup kitchens, donating to Doctors Without Borders and reading Peter Singer.

But the conference reminded me why I came to Columbia Business School in the first place. Just like the School, the one-day conference brought together like-minded people from diverse professional and cultural backgrounds, and every participant had a unique experience and point of view that made the event a very rewarding experience for novices like me and veterans of social impact alike.

The design thinking workshop hosted by TYTHEdesign, the main event of the conference, was a case in point. First pioneered by design company IDEO in the 1990s, design thinking utilizes creativity and systemic reasoning for problem solving, with the experience of the ultimate customer or beneficiary in mind in every step of the strategy formulation.

In the workshop I was involved in, the goal was to improve job creation for formerly incarcerated people (FIPs). Led by Alissa Ayden, ’19BUS, the small team included an alum who’s now an impact investor, a former Treasury Department official, and a social worker who was intimately familiar with the challenges faced by FIPs. None of us was familiar with design thinking, but we all found the brainstorming framework riveting and thought-provoking.

With the help of TYTHEdesign’s tools and frameworks, we reckoned that in the absence of a wholesale prison reform, the most effective way for the private sector to help reduce recidivism lies in securing steady jobs for FIPs. By the end of the workshop, we developed a plan of action using social media platforms with the aim to facilitate the job marketplace between potential employers and FIPs. We also devised a plan to secure funding for the transportation and initial housing that FIPS may need to re-enter society.

A core mission of the Social Enterprise Conference is to dismantle the myth that making profit and doing good are mutually exclusive. We got a taste of that at lunch from Eat Offbeat, which delivers delicious ethnic meals that are conceived, prepared, and delivered by refugees in New York City. My friend Jill Scovanner, ’19BUS, was very impressed. The food was “definitely not your typical conference lunch. The flavor was unreal and it was awesome knowing that the recipes were from the refugees’ home countries, like what they’d make at home,” she said.

Eat Offbeat is a for-profit founded by Manal Kahi, ’15SIPA, with seed funding provided by the Tamer Fund for Social Ventures at the School. DeansList is another Tamer Fund portfolio venture that believes the for-profit model creates the best outcome for the community it serves. Founded  by Matthew Robins, ’13BUS, and Akshai Patel, ’13BUS, DeansList is a data firm that helps teachers and administrators in underserved and low-income schools by streamlining administrative work and providing analytics on their students that the school can’t get otherwise.

 “Our customers are schools, they 100 percent share our social mission of helping educators to tackle the achievement gap,” Robins said. “But at the same time, they care as much, if not more, that our business model is sound. They need to know we can keep our lights on. The teachers can’t come to school and discover DeansList doesn’t work one day.”

An overarching sentiment of the conference was Washington politics may be dysfunctional and misguided, but it also means more responsibilities and opportunities for innovation in the hands of the private sector. I indeed walked away with a renewed sense of optimism and purpose, and a new set of design thinking skills I can utilize in almost every aspect of my life.

By Andrea Wong ’18BUS ’18JRN

Andrea is a Knight Bagehot fellow at Columbia Business School. She’s currently on sabbatical from Bloomberg News.