Video: Course Connects Student Consultants with Social Enterprises around the World

Over the past 15 years, more than 600 Yale students have served as consultants to social sector enterprises in developing countries, thanks to the Yale School of Management’s Global Social Entrepreneurship (GSE) course.

Founded in 2004, GSE links student teams with social enterprises seeking to improve or scale their operations. The students work in teams of four or five over the course of a semester to analyze a management challenge faced by the organization and to develop recommendations.

The course is designed to introduce students to the complex issues faced by mission-driven social entrepreneurs, while also contributing rigorous management thinking and expertise to the client organizations. To date, Yale students have worked with more than 100 organizations in countries including India, South Africa, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Brazil, Ghana, and Indonesia.

“It’s real-world learning that has a real-world impact,” says Tony Sheldon, lecturer in the practice of management and executive director of the Program on Social Enterprise. Sheldon has led the GSE course since 2009. The course is divided into two sections: GSE India and Spring GSE. While GSE India focuses solely on social enterprises in India, students in Spring GSE consult with organizations in a different country each year. The majority of students who participate are from SOM, but the course is open to other Yale students as well, and several each year come from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale Law School, and the Yale School of Public Health, as well as from the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.

During the course, students undertake a rigorous study of theoretical issues surrounding social enterprises, as well strengthening practical skills such as team dynamics and framing a consulting engagement. They collaborate with the leaders of their partner organizations, gathering information that shapes their consulting projects. Students also travel to the countries where their enterprises are based to spend a week or two working on site.

GSE clients tend to be mid-size organizations with solid operations that are stable and that are looking to expand in some way. “We look for how we can add real value to them as they’re scaling their operations,” Sheldon says. “Sometimes it’s financial modeling or exploring different approaches to scaling. The goal is always to leave them with recommendations that they can implement.” 

While it is difficult to quantify impact on organizations, Sheldon says that the ongoing relationships between GSE India and partner organizations are an indication that the clients receive a clear benefit. “For me, the main evidence of our positive impact is that we have GSE India partners coming back year after year, asking us to work with them on new projects,” he explains.

“We’ve been told that we tend to dig deeper and really push the issue farther than other schools’ student consultant projects,” Sheldon says. “Having a team of four to five students devoted to a project for four months is a lot of brainpower.”

The experience, Sheldon says, gives students an opportunity to apply learnings from Yale SOM’s core and elective curricula to a real-world project. “They get to see how these ideas relate to a real problem, and how you dig deep into a focused area in a way that has immediate applicability that you can see,” Sheldon says.

The experience is also an intensive immersion in teamwork. “Students say it’s the most intense team experience they have at SOM,” Sheldon says. “You work for a client, in a pressured way, traveling overseas, and collaborating while the clock is ticking. The quality of what they do is totally dependent on the quality of the team dynamics.”

Katy Davis ’12 participated in GSE India in 2011, and was a teaching assistant for a Spring GSE course in South Africa in 2012. “GSE is a unique channel for students to build tangible skills—project management, primary and secondary research methods, quantitative analysis—while helping a real-world organization achieve impact,” says Davis, a managing director at ideas42.

GSE changed her viewpoint of the nonprofit sector, Davis says. “Without a market mechanism to gauge demand for their services, nonprofits must be able to understand, and design for, the needs, wants, and context of the beneficiaries they serve,” she explains. “Today, I work for an organization that focuses on just this: using behavioral science to better design for humans and solve social problems. I look back to GSE as the pivotal moment that taught me how important it is to put humans at the center of everything we do.”

Rebecca Chan ’16 participated in GSE in 2015, consulting with a social enterprise in Brazil. She was also a teaching assistant for GSE India the following year. Today an associate at Camber Collective, a consulting firm, Chan calls the course one of her favorite experiences during business school.

“Facing and overcoming the day-to-day challenges of consulting globally and grappling with the complexities of social impact issues were key pieces to my professional growth,” Chan says. “Feeling like we had a real impact on the social enterprise we were working with and getting to support them in their mission was truly inspiring.”

And, Chan says, the experience still resonates: “All of the activities—scoping out a meaningful piece of work, getting to know a company from abroad, and framing and communicating our analysis in a way that was useful for the client—lent themselves directly to the work I do today.”

The GSE course was one of the main reasons that Arpita Bhattacharyya ’16, senior project development analyst at SunPower, chose to attend Yale SOM. “I wanted to be at a business school that elevated social impact classes to the same importance as finance and competitive strategy classes,” says Bhattacharyya, who participated in GSE in Brazil and was a teaching assistant for the course in India.

“The GSE experience creates a community with a shared commitment to social impact,” Bhattacharyya says. “Today, my GSE classmates are my strongest career network, because many are innovating in mission-oriented fields. Some of my best friends from SOM are also people I met through GSE.”