Eight Years of Positive Impact with Social Entrepreneurship at UVA


Over the past decade, many Ivy League universities and top-ranked business schools have taken an increased interest in the field of social entrepreneurship. As a school of leadership and public policy, the Batten School was early to embrace the social entrepreneurship movement. In the last eight years, Social Entrepreneurship at UVA (SE@UVA), a Batten School initiative, has established itself as a leading research hub for students interested in leveraging their education to make a positive impact on society.

“What is unique about SE@UVA is that it grew out of students’ desire to learn more about the field of social entrepreneurship and the different avenues and tools available to them to make a positive impact when they graduate,” said Laura Toscano, associate director of SE@UVA.

Toscano, who prior to joining SE@UVA worked with range of leading social ventures in the D.C. area, discussed how she, herself, was initially drawn to the field of social entrepreneurship because of its innovative approach to creating social good.

“After studying philosophy, which was all very theoretical, I couldn’t wait to do something in the real world,” said Toscano, who upon graduating from Yale in 2005, went on to work for social enterprises, including Ashoka, KaBOOM!, and D.C. Central Kitchen.

Toscano didn’t have access to programs like SE@UVA during her undergraduate studies as social entrepreneurship was still a relatively young field. This is less the case today, and students continue to be increasingly attracted to the field.

Since its inception in 2012, SE@UVA has become one of the University’s fastest-growing minors. The decision to align SE@UVA with a school of leadership and public policy distinguishes the initiative from other social entrepreneurship programs that are often affiliated with business schools.

SE@UVA infographic

Under the direction of Batten Professor Christine Mahoney, SE@UVA has made great strides.

“It has been amazing to see how SE@UVA has grown from an idea of a few students that walked into my office eight years ago, to a first few classes on social entrepreneurship that were immediately oversubscribed, to a mature program enrolling hundreds of students every year, serving hundreds of minors in Social Entrepreneurship, incubating dozens of social enterprises and touching the lives of thousands of UVA students,” said Mahoney.

From its broad range of different fellowship opportunities to its exciting speaker series, SE@UVA has now grown to include a variety of programs that give students a chance to learn about the different paths they can later take as future social entrepreneurs upon graduation. SE@UVA also oversees a track of the University-wide Entrepreneurship Cup focused on social impact, providing students a chance to conceptualize, pitch, and win funding for innovative solutions to the world’s toughest challenges.

The experiential side of SE@UVA shows students how they might later apply what they have learned in the classroom to the real world.

“All students are looking for a career with impact,” said Toscano. “Events like the SE@UVA Speaker Series are an opportunity for students to hear from visiting alumni and experts in the field of social entrepreneurship in a way that will not only teach them about the field, but inspire them to be involved in creating positive change in their communities.”

SE@UVA runs three labs—one local (New Vinegar Hill: Charlottesville), one regional (Impact Investing in Action: Appalachia), and one global (Social Enterprise for Resilience: Dominica). These labs provide students with first-hand exposure to the range of challenges confronting all levels of society, and how social entrepreneurship can provide innovative and sustainable solutions.

“Our Policy in Action Labs allow students to apply what they learn in the classroom to a real-world situation,” said Toscano. “They work alongside policymakers and local community leaders to address a real problem facing each community. These projects also serve as a leading example of meaningful and equity-centered community engagement projects at UVA.”   

These labs illustrate the experiential nature of the program and demonstrate SE@UVA’s unique approach to teaching leadership through hands-on learning opportunities and field experience.

“At SE@UVA, our goal is to spark this idea of making leaders more entrepreneurial—nimbler and better suited to solve the world’s problems.” said Toscano. “Too often policymaking is viewed as a slow plodding process, while entrepreneurship is often associated with rapid innovation.”

Taylor Kamhong
SE@UVA's Taylor Kamhong (photo courtesy of Sorenson Impact)

SE@UVA provides students across UVA with the skills and tools to become active social entrepreneurs. Through unique fellowship opportunities, including the Royster-Lawton fellowship, students like Taylor Kamhong (COL ’20) have a rare opportunity to put what they learn in the classroom into practice.

As a fellow, Kamhong interned for DreamWakers, a national education technology nonprofit that virtually connects under-resourced classrooms to exceptional career professionals. DreamWakers is also the brainchild of Batten alum Monica Logothetis (MPP ’09), who serves on SE@UVA’s Advisory Board.

“I had the chance to meet Monica, as SE@UVA encourages us to interact directly with members of the Advisory Board,” said Kamhong. “It just so happened that Monica had space for an internship. It was really cool to work with her. Monica is a Batten alum who started her nonprofit with the help of the Darden Venture Lab, which is also fascinating. Thanks to the fellowship and Laura Toscano’s guidance, I was able take what I was learning in the classroom and put it directly into a project with one of our stakeholders, as well as think broadly about how we are going to measure the impact of programs like SE@UVA.”

“I’m so proud of the team we’ve built,” said Mahoney. “Our faculty, instructors and staff bring a wealth of knowledge. They have started their own social ventures, scaled social enterprises nationally, conducted international fieldwork on financial inclusion, expanded social innovation in our Commonwealth’s capital, and collectively touched the lives of thousands of people. It’s an inspirational group.”

Learn more about SE@UVA and support their work

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