Brown University is known for its open curriculum, and its commitment to social justice. So it is no surprise that Brown is one of the foremost colleges in the country teaching and practicing an innovative social change business model known as social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurs take an innovative, untested idea for positive social change and usher it from dream to reality.
Based in Brown University’s Swearer Center for Public Service, the university’s new Social Innovation Initiative (SII) is quietly playing a major role in the rise of social entrepreneurship in Providence, nationally and internationally.
Alan Harlam, SII’s director, describes how after twenty years in the private sector he craved more meaningful work. He was inspired by, and then became a consultant in shaping an institutional and full-service catering business, More Than a Meal, for Amos House, a Providence nonprofit. More than A Meal is a social enterprise that creates employment opportunity for the poor and homeless served by the nonprofit, while simultaneously generating income to sustain it. Experiencing the successful application of his business knowledge and skills to deliver positive social impact via the free market was transformative for Harlam. He had discovered his passion.
In 2007, Harlam was hired as the first Director of Social Entrepreneurship for Brown’s Social Innovation Initiative, to provide institutional support to students who are using innovation to drive social change. Harlam and his students create a “generous culture of idea and resource sharing,” mentoring and supporting budding social entrepreneurs, and enhancing the impact and sustainability of their work in communities by connecting them with skills and resources at Brown and in Providence. SII offers fellowships with stipends, year-long workshops, a Peer Critique forum, access to competitive grants, and an on-line network.
Community partnerships are key to Brown’s definition of social innovation, and SII recognizes that its efforts are made possible by the pioneering work of a range of individuals and organizations in Providence, such as the Rhode Island Foundation, New Roots Providence, and many others.
Last year, the Brown community raised upwards of $300,000 to support social enterprise and SII provided seed grants to numerous innovative, entrepreneurial student projects. Some examples include: Runa (www.fundacionruna.org), a blended business and nonprofit foundation based in Providence and Ecuador that generates income to conserve endangered Amazonian ecosystems and provide sustainable employment for the local populations through the sale of a new health-energy drink made from a rain forest plant; Gardens for Health (http://www.gardensforhealth.org) a 2009 recipient of a prestigious Echoing Green fellowship, this nonprofit working in Rwanda enables HIV-positive individuals to improve their nutrition and health through low-cost sustainable agriculture practices; and the Capital Good Fund (http://www.capitalgoodfund.org) a non-profit micro-lender based in Providence which works in collaboration with local agencies to makes small business loans to low-income residents and recent immigrants who do not qualify for traditional financing.
Harlam is thrilled to see so many social entrepreneurs emerging from his program at Brown with bold ideas translated into strong business plans that are changing the world.