December 30, 2008 — What happens after three students from the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce spend a few weeks Tanzania and Ecuador?
Answer: They come back to Charlottesville and found Student Entrepreneurs for Economic Development, an 80-member student-run organization offering free, comprehensive consulting services to non-governmental organizations and social entrepreneurs around the world, with a particular emphasis on microfinance.
Social entrepreneurship involves running a financially sustainable organization, the success of which is measured primarily in terms of its positive social impact. Microfinance, a subset of social entrepreneurship, involves making very small loans to very poor people, with the aim of breaking the cycle of poverty.
"We want to use the business skills we've learned at McIntire to make a difference," said fourth-year commerce student Yix Ng, one of SEED's founders and the organization's president. "We're doing this because we believe we can have a tangible social impact in some of the most impoverished areas of the world."
SEED, which is not yet one year old, is the brainchild of Ng and classmates Cheryl Kong and Neil Paine. During a six-week stint in Ecuador, Paine saw a well-run microfinance organization produce inspiring results; Kong and Ng, during two weeks in Tanzania, saw a not-so-well-run microfinance organization produce less-than-inspiring results. All three returned from their experiences filled with a new awareness of social entrepreneurship's tremendous potential for good — and of the particular potency of microfinance.
"To be honest, I really didn't know much about microfinance before I went down to Ecuador," said Paine, now SEED's external vice president. "But while I was there, I saw what a need there is for it, and also how powerful it can be. Charity can do lots of good, but socially responsible business is so much more powerful."
SEED in Action
It's this power that SEED, through its wide-ranging consulting services, seeks to unleash. The group has seven active consulting projects in Honduras, Ecuador and Sierra Leone. Project goals include rolling out a new high-tech loan-tracking system for a microfinance organization; rebranding an organization dedicated to community revitalization around the world; establishing a new microfinance division within a group that provides financial, social and educational support; and helping balance costs and revenues within another socially motivated organization's school.
"It's a wide range of consulting," said Kong, SEED's internal vice president. "We'll do whatever our partners need us to do, and whatever we feel we're capable of doing."
SEED's student staff seems to be capable of a remarkable amount — and they credit McIntire with having given them the know-how, attitude and support that form the foundation of those capabilities. McIntire students are, of course, expertly trained in the fundamental business skills that enable SEED to provide top-notch consulting services.
"There are some projects," Ng said, "where we've used every skill we've learned at McIntire."
Ng said McIntire's keen focus on the execution of skills and knowledge has made the critical difference for SEED.
"I think one thing that's really helped us is the way McIntire students are trained to operate and think," he said. "Economics students often think in very theoretical, very 'macro' terms. But McIntire students are application-based. We learn how to do something and how to implement it."
Indeed, Ng said, "SEED is really the case-based approach in action — except the case doesn't come from Harvard Business School, it comes from us."
Moreover, Ng said he's proud that McIntire, through SEED, is offering so many U.Va. students the opportunity to act on their good intentions.
"A lot of people are very socially aware," he said. "But they don't have an outlet — they don't know where to start. SEED provides them with that outlet."
Kong said that McIntire's supportive faculty members — especially professors Lynn Hamilton, Peter Maillet, James Maxham and Brad Brown — have also played a key role in SEED's success.
"Besides the skills and outlook we've learned at McIntire, it's also the environment here," she said. "All the professors have been so encouraging — they've always been willing to talk to us and to help us get people involved. We spoke to Dean Zeithaml, and he was so fired up and encouraging. It's really because of this environment that we've managed to grow and flourish."
Where We Go from Here
In the short term, SEED — in addition to attracting new clients from around the world and implementing solutions for its existing clients — plans to host a forum titled "The Power of Social Entrepreneurship" this spring.
"Our aim is to bring together speakers from all over the world and from the public, private and academic sectors to share their views on the potential of social entrepreneurship to alleviate poverty from the bottom up," said fourth-year McIntire student Natalia Wagner, who handles publicity for SEED. "We're hoping to draw in some big names."
As for the long term, the group's founders, all of whom will graduate this spring, are carefully laying the foundations to ensure that SEED will remain a vibrant and active organization. They say they're busy grooming leaders to take over when they leave and that they plan to remain involved as alumni.
"What really motivated me to start SEED was something I heard Doris Buffett say when she came to visit McIntire," Ng said. "Basically her message was 'If you haven't made a difference in this world, your life wasn't worth living.' We think we can make a difference — and we want to make sure that SEED continues to thrive."