The Business of Doing Good

Published on July 21, 2010

While many people are drawn to social entrepreneurship by a desire to help bring about change, the field also offers a chance for workers to hone skills valuable in the corporate world — and an opportunity to make money.

Social entrepreneurs Lauren Polo, a first-year student in the Full-Time MBA Program, and Desiree Vargas Wrigley shared their experiences in launching successful social entrepreneurship ventures at a panel discussion July 31 at Gleacher Center. The event was co-sponsored by two student-led groups, Private Equity, Entrepreneurial Ventures and Venture Capital Club and Net Impact.

“There’s no one definition for social entrepreneurship,” said Polo, co-founder of Mathzee.com, a company that offers innovative computer games designed to help kindergartner students learn math.

But certainly, there is money to be made, said Desiree Vargas Wrigley, who co-founded GiveForward.org, a site that allows individuals to create a personal fundraising page for any person, cause, or nonprofit group.

Both described the obstacles they overcame in turning their ideas into actual ventures. While developing a prototype of her business model, Polo said she was bombarded with people’s opinions on what the web site should be. “You have to just overcome that paralysis and feedback from everyone,” she said

.Both Polo and Wrigley described how they raised money for their startups, from borrowing money from friends to fundraising, which proved difficult at times. Polo said the rewards can be slow to come at first. Wrigley agreed. “It’s hard for for-profit social entrepreneurs,” she said. “People don’t think they can make money.”

Wrigley proved them wrong. After her company got exposure from national media, her business took off. To date, the company has helped people raise $2 million.

In any case, working in social entrepreneurship can provide invaluable experience. Wrigley said friends have left the field and gone on to be successful in the corporate world. Polo echoed the thought. “You learn so many tangible skills as a social entrepreneur,” she said. “I don’t look at it as a hard sell. You’re getting real business skills.”

In fact, volunteering for or working as an intern at a social entrepreneurship venture gives one experience that is transferable to the corporate world, said Mahesh Rajan, a student in the Weekend MBA Program who co-chairs PEVC. “It’s particularly relevant to students looking for internship opportunities this year,” he said.

Asim Aleem, also a weekend MBA student, said he found the presentation inspiring. “Hearing some of the logistical challenges they faced up front with respect to financing, getting the right people in place, and executing on their vision provided a great first-hand glimpse into the sometimes over-simplified aspects of successfully launching a new venture,” Aleem said.

—Shane Graber

Find out more about Polo’s take on Chicago Booth.