Yale Curriculum: Social Enterprise

Justin Tomljanovic ’08 spent his spring break in the highlands of the Colombian Andes, amidst cloud forests, high altitude grasslands, and the encenillo, a tall, peculiar tree with small light green leaves that look a bit like hands. But this wasn’t a vacation; Tomljanovic was helping to design a financial model to help Fundacion Natura — the Colombian version of the Nature Conservancy — manage the 500-acre Encenillo Reserve. “We were just looking at everything with a clean slate and asking how they generate revenue but at the same time are very consistent with their conservation mission,” he said, adding that the reserve includes old farmland that initially didn’t strike him as central to its appeal. “It turns out agricultural tourism is huge in Colombia. We had no idea, but people in the cities love to go out into the country and stare at crops.”

Tomljanovic was joined by 22 SOM colleagues, who between them worked on a half-dozen projects in Colombia. The group is part of Global Social Enterprise, a four credit course/student club that is a unique offering at SOM. Started in 2004 as a student club that provides pro-bono consulting services to organizations in the developing world, GSE evolved to include a course in the 2006-2007 school year under the guidance of Garry Brewer, the Frederick K. Weyerhaeuser Professor of Resource Policy and Management.

GSE, which is listed as a spring term course, is closer to a full-year commitment because it is still essentially run by students. Starting early in the school year, a handful of student leaders begin mapping out the course. With Brewer as advisor, the group takes the initiative not just to plan the projects, but to structure the classroom part of the course, which is focused on bringing in speakers who can provide advice and assistance to the students. The biggest part of the planning is to identify the host country for the projects, and then launch the process to find organizations in need of their help. So far, GSE has done projects in Madagascar, South Africa, and Brazil. Colombia was chosen this year largely because Brewer had strong contacts with Universidad des Los Andes in Bogota. “They’ve created an MBA for the environment that is based on our joint SOM/FES degree, so they were very anxious to partner with us,” Brewer said. “And since our time in country is limited, we wanted to go somewhere where we had some established relationships. Colombia seemed a logical choice.”

GSE draws students who have an interest in the environment, international development, and consulting. Christopher Clement SOM/FES ’08 worked in urban development and environmental advocacy before coming to Yale. He got involved in GSE because it gave him an opportunity to put skills he’d been learning in the classroom into action. “Being at SOM made me feel I was coming into a new skill set,” said Clement, who is class leader, along with Tomljanovic, Peter Robinson ’08, and Giovanna Masci ’08. “I was not only an environmental practitioner, but I was now an emerging business practitioner. And the GSE provided a really interesting platform for me to exercise some of these new skills and put them to work in an arena that’s really hard to replicate in an academic environment.”

This year, the students worked on six different projects. In addition to the financial plan for Fundacion Natura, the class helped the Colombian franchise of the World Wildlife Foundation create a system to better manage its finances and track donors; created an organizational growth and management plan for a small nonprofit that provides social networking platforms for other nonprofits; surveyed the effectiveness of a large foundation’s educational programs in the country; worked with the staff of Universidad des Los Andes on its environmental MBA program; and analyzed the formal and informal recycling sector in Colombia for an organization looking to it as a way to invest in poor communities. The on-the-ground work took place over five days, with the second week set-aside to allow the students to tour Colombia.

“I did everything from go to a school/nutritional program in a slum of Bogota to meet with the head of the first private equity fund in Colombia to interview hotel managers and travel agents in Bogota about different possible uses for the Encenillo Reserve,” Robinson said. “Christopher and Giovanna are very fluent in Spanish, so they translated for some of the teams. A number of days we had speakers that were lined up for us by the Universidad des Los Andes. And we were kind of anxious to explore the city a little bit, too. So there wasn't a lot of time for rest.”

Robinson, like the others, spoke about how much he enjoyed working with the Colombian businesspeople and nonprofit leaders they met. “They were all really committed to their work, and they were really gracious toward us,” he said. More than just an enjoyable spring break, Clement said GSE provided him with the kind of experience he hoped for when he enrolled at SOM. “It's a great testing ground to go out and expose yourself to organizations that are interesting to you, in an environment where there are real expectations, and a real chance for failure,” he said. “We created a situation where the commitment is manageable, but ultimately it’s up to us to perform under some unusual circumstances. After all the hard work, we can see that we’ve made a difference, and that’s a great feeling. I don’t think there’s a comparable experience anywhere at Yale.”