CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – A competition being held this week by North Carolina’s public university system pits 31 student-led teams that are presenting business plans for enterprises that would both generate profits and help the needy.
The first North Carolina Social Business Conference on Thursday promises to boost, if only a little, a hybrid of business and charity getting more attention since the Great Recession highlighted that free markets can’t provide all society needs. The competition at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro is also a platform for the university system to show off its 17-campus emphasis on pulling concepts out of classrooms and into commerce.
The teams will be asked to explain how they would build a profit-making enterprise generating cash for purposes such as helping retrain the unemployed or feeding the hungry.
“We know that students get excited about solving big problems, dreaming big dreams, imagining a world that’s different from the one they grew up in. This is blended in this competition with a reality check how are you going to pay for it?” said Leslie Boney, a University of North Carolina system vice president whose job involves finding ways to employ college brainpower outside of campus boundaries. “It’s chocolate and peanut butter.”
Social businesses already operate worldwide, from chocolate production in Africa that funds pediatric medicine to California-based Tom’s Shoes, a company that donates a pair of shoes to children for every pair sold. They’re part of the spread of the business values of innovation and financial discipline into government and charities.
Venture philanthropists emphasize getting measurable results for their investment. In Great Britain, the conservative government this spring launched the Big Society Bank to invest in charities and social enterprises as spending on social issues is slashed.
Universities from Kyushu in Japan to Columbia in New York are increasingly spreading the idea of the socially conscious enterprise.
Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered the concept of social businesses more than 30 years ago, is a speaker at the conference in Greensboro.
The winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize showed that smart lending to the very poor in Bangladesh could help them break the cycle of poverty by starting small businesses and that almost all of the money is repaid. The microcredit movement has since been replicated in poor communities in dozens of countries, including the United States.
Yunus spoke last year at a similar forum hosted by the University of Georgia that featured a competition that helped inspire the one in North Carolina.
Yunus also headlines similar social business conferences planned at the University of the District of Columbia on Friday and the University of Oregon on Monday. President Bill Clinton’s Clinton Global Initiative University program highlights university-level ideas for social enterprises that could spark global change.
College students are interested in social businesses because their generation is uniquely steeped in the self-branding and freelance culture of today’s business world and also possesses the can-do optimism of youth, said Prof. James Johnson Jr., who teaches social entrepreneurship at the UNC-Chapel Hill business school but is not involved in the competition.
“The millenials are the innovation generation. They think in entrepreneurial terms,” Johnson said. “They really think they can change the world. And they will have to in this economy and this downturn. These kids want to hang out a shingle and do it on their own.”
The top three finishers in the UNC social business conference have been promised help from venture capitalists and others among the panel of judges to get their business ideas off the ground.
For two guys focused on starting a company since they were freshmen at Appalachian State University, the competition is a chance to win funding for a business that would provide benefits for the surrounding community.
Denny Alcorn, 22, and Eric McTeir, 23, are looking for $300,000 to $500,000 to finance their idea of growing fish, fruits and high-value ginseng in a closed system that saves water and undercuts poachers who scour the mountains searching for the herb. Its mission would be to help feed the local homeless, Alcorn said.
“It kind of is a self-fulfilling system, how the fish waste is used by the plants to make them grow with the water,” said Eric McTeir, 23, an Appalachian State senior in finance and economics who hails from Pittsburg, Pa. “We have the idea, and that’s mainly what we have right now.”