Applying Social Entrepreneurship Theory to the Real World

This spring, Professor Bala Mulloth launched Developing a New Social Venture, a capstone course offered to fourth-years in Batten’s undergraduate program. Part of the suite of SE@UVA social entrepreneurship classes, the three-credit course, originally taught by Professor Mulloth to MBA students at Central European University Business School in Budapest, takes students “out of the classroom and into the marketplace.” Throughout the semester, students have the opportunity to explore entrepreneurship by building a business from the ground up. Student self-organize in teams and work with Professor Mulloth and local entrepreneurs to take their ideas from concept to launch, culminating in a final assessment of the venture’s viability.     

The 13 students currently enrolled in the course are building on theories and concepts learned in Mulloth’s social entrepreneurship class, “Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship.” In the introductory class, these students had the opportunity to pitch initial concepts. Now, they have the chance to build out the idea and launch their venture.

The class is a unique offering for undergraduates. It is loosely structured into five phases rather than typical bi-weekly or weekly class sessions. The five phases are Scoping and Viability, Team Creation and Business Plan Development, Building the Organization, Resource Building and Running the Venture, and Final Assessment. Instead of traditional lectures, Professor Mulloth encourages students to use class time for data collection. He also invites local entrepreneurs, business advisors and venture capitalists to speak to students each week. These guest speakers share personal lessons learned from past experiences, including key takeaways from their successes and failures. Students then have the opportunity to pitch their business to the visitors, who provide feedback and advice for the student venture.

“The course mirrors the process social entrepreneurs go through. The students develop the professional skills they need to create socially-minded ventures that are attractive to customers as well as investors. They also explore public-private partnerships and policies that might affect the venture,” says Professor Mulloth.

A team of five Batten students are working on developing their own venture, C’Full, an after-school program that educates area youth about nutrition. The idea originated in the Introduction to Social Entrepreneurship class. Students have successfully negotiated a partnership with Whole Foods to secure less expensive food for the program. They have also signed an agreement with Zion Union Baptist Church as the first venue for their after-school program. Their goal is to become sustainable through grants and donations and pass on the project to interested Batten students in the fall.

Emma Clark, one of the founders of C’Full, says, “[This course] has allowed me to take what I have learned about the growing problem of childhood obesity and create a real company that aims to increase nutrition education and bring healthy options to children in Charlottesville. The class has provided me with real experience creating a business and I learned more about what it takes to create a social venture from creating partnerships and relationships to scaling and creating a business plan.”

While some students are working on their own social venture ideas, others are working with local entrepreneurs to amplify existing business development efforts. Two Charlottesville companies, Agile Precis Ventures and 2 Gen Cville, have partnered with Professor Mulloth to provide students with opportunities to take part in the venture creation process.

Agile Precis Ventures’s key project is Pearl Island Foods, a venture that serves to bring awareness of Haitian cuisine and culture to the Charlottesville market and hopes to develop a strategy for accessing the local customer base. Students have tested the product and have started to form partnerships with local grocers such as Rebecca’s Natural Food. 2 Gen Cville provides single mothers in Charlottesville with access to higher education and supports children with early childhood education programming. Students have helped to grow the nonprofit and develop its niche in Charlottesville’s crowded nonprofit industry.

The local entrepreneurs are happy with the students’ success and contributions to their companies. The model is a win-win for Batten students and Charlottesville business-owners: Students love being able to work on real-world problems and entrepreneurs are happy to have the help and even serve as mentors. Professor Mulloth hopes that these unique partnerships may lead to long-term opportunities for those students interested in the ventures.

“We are very pleased and impressed with the enthusiasm, dedication, responsibility, and thought process the students have brought to the table,” says Dillon Franks, CMO of Agile Precis. Although the students do not have in depth business training, “they are all clear and practical thinkers who only need to be mentored.” Thus far, Franks has been happy to step into the role of mentor for the capstone students.

At the end of the semester, students will not be graded solely on the success of the business or viability of the concept. Rather, Professor Mulloth hopes students learn valuable lessons throughout the semester. A student’s ability to demonstrate personal growth because of his or her experience as an entrepreneur is success in itself.