On being Unreasonable


This is a guest post on how NIU students are changing the world through the college’s social entrepreneurship program in the Department of Management.

CAUSE On being Unreasonable

NIU CAUSE, a social entrepreneurship student organization

…a CAUSE to Live Into

Every generation has its moniker:  from the Boomers, Hippies to the 20-somethings of today.   But what’s really in a name?  Just ask a closely-knit group of current NIU students who in early April pulled off their first university-wide Social Impact Summit.  The event brought together more than 170 industry experts, students, and faculty for a day-long conversation on social entrepreneurship.  And while the students surpassed their goal of 150 attendees, they didn’t rest on their laurels.  After the event, they returned to their studies, which included refining the business plans they had been developing in their Social Entrepreneurship class.  Because in early May, these students will put their ideas to the test yet again.  During the 2nd Annual NIU Social Venture Competition, each of their business ventures will be judged by a “shark tank” of angel capitalists who will evaluate how their proposed new ventures intentionally add value to the Triple Bottom Line:  people, profit, and planet.

So when you ask this particular group of students to explain how they’re typically typecast, they’ll tell you their swagger has nothing to do with the label “entitled.”  Instead they’ll describe deeply rooted expectations.

They expect to change the world for the better.   Plain and simple.  If that sounds unreasonable, well, they’ll admit they have every cause to be.  Consider this:

  • 50% of the world’s population lives below the poverty line.
  • Over 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • Around 1 billion people do not have access to clean water.
  • An estimated 14 billion pounds of garbage is dumped into the ocean each year.
  • The world’s population is outstripping the planet’s natural ability to replenish its own resources.

These sobering stats and more were presented by national experts in social entrepreneurship during NIU’s April 5th Social Impact Summit.  In spite of the magnitude of the challenges, somehow the attendees remained not only hopeful but energized.  Junior NIU College of Business student Zach Fiegel explains:  “There are so many incredibly intelligent, amazing individuals in the world.  If we focus together on these issues, imagine what we can accomplish.  And why not?  One of the motivations behind the Social Impact Summit and our student organization is an idea that was originally expressed by George Bernard Shaw.  He said:  ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’”

For Fiegel, that’s a philosophy that resonates.  Fiegel is currently president of NIU CAUSE:  the Collegiate Association of Unreasonable Social Entrepreneurs.  In fact, as a sophomore Fiegel helped found the organization.  Just one year after its formation, NIU CAUSE has grown from a group of 7 students who were inspired by an idea – being unreasonable enough to change the world – to a full-fledged student organization that focuses its mindshare on that purpose.  More than 30 participants attend their weekly gatherings.  The group is overrun with enthusiasm, achieved the old-fashioned way.

“CAUSE has grown organically, through relationships and conversations with friends and friends of friends,” Fiegel shares.  “The students represent a variety of NIU majors – business, geology, anthropology, health sciences, engineering to name a few.  Our members include international as well as non-traditional students.  We’re a diverse group with different backgrounds and perspectives.  The thing that unites us is that we’re all individuals converging around this one idea:  to make the world a stronger, better place.”

You have to wonder why individuals so young possess this particular focus.  There’s a tangible wisdom in their commitment.  You sense it and feel it in their energy.  And then when you engage in conversation with them, you come to realize that many of them lived through the effects of a parent being laid off.  Others felt the impact of financial disruption around their dinner table.  All of them continue to witness the world’s challenges on a real time basis through social media channels.  When one of the Social Impact Summit keynoters asked attendees if they ever lived at or below the poverty level, nearly half of those present – many of them current students – raised their hands.

These are old souls in young bodies who identify with the radical idea of creating hope in a sometimes cynical world.

Fiegel describes the rationale.  “Social entrepreneurship in itself is an idea that people can rally around.  Plus, there’s the benefit of knowing that people who join a new organization like NIU CAUSE join for the right reason.  They get to build something the way they want to see it built.  They get to make an impact and they get to know that they do.”

Indeed, Fiegel and his fellow change makers have a great deal of latitude to shape NIU CAUSE.  Still, they don’t fly solo nor do they want to.  Their entire culture – their tribe, if you will – is about marshalling forces to effect real change.  They are guided by two NIU Business faculty members who advise them.  As members in the NIU CAUSE tribe, these professors foster a faculty-student relationship that is more a collaboration than anything else…where everyone stands to contribute and to learn, even the professors.

“The students came up with the idea for the Social Impact Summit,” NIU CAUSE faculty advisor Christine Mooney says.  “They wanted to do it from start to finish:  creating the theme, dealing with the logistics, finding the keynote presenters, securing event sponsors, getting the word out and running the entire Summit.  None of them ever created an event before.  I am so amazed by their commitment and creativity.”

An NIU professor in the Department of Management with background in strategic leadership, Christine Mooney recently received the Bill and Paula LeRoy Professorship in Social Entrepreneurship.  Mooney works with her NIU Business colleague Dennis Barsema, who is no stranger to making a difference.  Both the NIU College of Business facility and the university’s Alumni & Visitors Center bear the Barsema name.

Like the LeRoys, Barsema is a member of the NIU alumni base, having earned his degree in the department in which he now teaches.  And like the LeRoys, Dennis and his wife Stacey are passionate about making a genuine difference in the lives of others.  Along with giving back to his alma mater and developing the social entrepreneurship program, Dennis Barsema is currently on the Board of Directors for five for-profit and non-profit organizations including Oportunidad Microfinanzas, Mexico of Opportunity International.

Denise Schoenbachler, Dean of the NIU College of Business states,”I am so grateful to Dennis and Stacey for getting the NIU College of Business involved and vested in social entrepreneurship.  They’ve ignited passion in the students, faculty like Christine, the administration, and other alumni like the LeRoys.  This is only the beginning.  With Dennis and Christine at the helm, they are part of a group of national leaders focused on the important work of applying business expertise to some of the world’s most pressing problems.”

Since its inception, NIU’s social entrepreneurship program has garnered media attention from the Chicago Tribune to the Boston Globe (which described a short-list of three college level programs in this field and included NIU in the group, along with Harvard and MIT).  What makes NIU’s approach distinctive is its range and popularity over such a short period of time.  NIU’s program includes courses in social entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, a certificate program in social entrepreneurship, and a newly created social entrepreneurship minor.  The program capstone is the Social Venture Competition, where students pitch their business ideas to social venture investors.  The competition transforms the winning ideas into reality and in its first year, helped launch social business “Light Up Africa.”  Shortly after its formation, “Light Up Africa” went on to be named a semi-finalist in Dell’s Social Innovation Challenge and won a coveted spot in the 2012 inaugural class of Impact Engine, a social business accelerator in Chicago.

“The Social Venture Competition is testimony to the character and resolve of the NIU student,” shares Dennis Barsema.   “This is a generation that has volunteered more than any generation since the Great Depression.  They have a passion and concern for the social issues of our world.  And, they have the courage to follow their passion.  Our job, as educators and business people, is to give them the tools, guidance, and mentoring to do something positive with that energy.”

Indeed, NIU’s social entrepreneurship program is distinctive in large measure because of the way Mooney and Barsema teach the topic.  Their approach is as much in the doing as it is in the thinking.  Supporting Zach Fiegel and his cohort’s idea for the Social Impact Summit and putting all the students’ business ventures on the line for angel funding…those are just two examples out of a multitude.

Perhaps one of the most impactful ways is when the students travel with their professors to witness social entrepreneurship firsthand through short-term study abroad trips.  The most recent occurred a week ago, with a visit to entrepreneur Dona Alejandra in Mexico City.  Dona Alejandra is a client of the microfinance institution Aspire.  Aspire provides lending to the “missing middle:”  those individuals who require loans larger than the $500 loans provided by a traditional microfinance institution but smaller than the $10,000 loans provided by a  commercial bank.  The meeting between Dona Alejandra and the students was made possible through the help of Elly Rohrer, Executive Director of Investours, a non-profit in the microfinance space.  Here’s Dona Alejandra’s story:

image001 11 On being Unreasonable

Dona Alejandra

Doña Alejandra is a third generation baker from Mexico City. As one of 13 siblings growing up in a situation of extreme poverty, Doña Alejandra developed a love for the bread she learned to make in her father’s bakery: it symbolized sustenance. With one kilo of flour, she could provide food for her siblings and make product to sell.

Doña Alejandra’s mentality about bread has not changed, though she is now in her 50s, lives on the Pacific coast, and has a family of her own. She built a wood-burning oven and took out a micro-loan to establish her own small bakery. As the primary (and often only) income owner in a house-hold of four, Doña Alejandra works long hours to bake and sell hundreds of breads and pastries a week. An entrepreneurial woman, Doña Alejandra is always proud to share her story.

“Meeting all the amazing entrepreneurs in Mexico, including Dona Alejandra, was extraordinary because you see the transformation of their lives and families on so many levels,” Barsema says.  “The students were able to see how a small loan could lead these small business owners to a life of dignity, opportunity and hope for themselves and their families, and make tremendous improvements in their local community.  Without a doubt, they are great examples of perseverance and drive.”

Plus, at a very intrinsic level, the students also see their own professors walk the talk.

“The fact that someone like that takes an interest in other people and with this level of commitment…it amazes me,” Fiegel says.  “Mr. Barsema has achieved so much success in business.  He’s been an executive – including President and CEO – in five major corporations.  He could relax and not be involved with finding and supporting new business models to help others lift themselves out of desperate situations.  But he cares so much.  He’s so humble and generous.  He’s someone I hope to emulate one day.”

By all accounts, Zach and his fellow students are well on their way.  Operating funds for NIU CAUSE started at zero.  But after weekly sales of homemade pizza  (yes, the students make them from scratch and their Barsema Hall customer base declares the foodstuff to be “life changing”) as well as from revenues generated at the Social Impact Summit, NIU CAUSE has raised enough money to sustain its operations and then some.  True to form, the students intend to invest a portion of those dollars in a social entrepreneur.

And if that’s not enough on May 2nd at 6 p.m. in NIU’s Barsema Alumni & Visitors Center, the social entrepreneurship students will unveil what are certain to be business plans as ingenious as Light Up Africa…originally an NIU student generated business idea – now a viable business – that brings a renewable light source to a part of the world without access to the electrical grid.

All of which for these students makes for an impressive and uncommon journey, one where their expectations to change the world are emboldened even more.  But it really goes much deeper still.  This is a generation that cut its teeth on an age of disruption.  Now, as they stand at the threshold of life after college, they carry a different worldview.  Instead of getting blown over, they lean forward into action in the face of change.  They’re not lulled by a false sense of security.  They know how complex life is, even if it morphs faster than most can really assimilate or even trust.  But echoing the advice Steve Jobs gave to Stanford grads, they’re wise enough to know that:  “you have to trust in something.”

Where better to place your trust than in your own desire to change the world?  If that level of commitment earns those of this amazing ilk the label Unreasonable, that’s more than fine with them.   …and more than fine for the world.

Event Information

  • May 2nd The 2nd Annual NIU Social Venture Competition, 6 p.m., NIU Barsema Alumni & Visitors Center, DeKalb, Illinois.
  • April 5th NIU Social Impact Summit keynoters:   Megan Kashner, TEDx speaker and Founder-CEO of Benevolent.Net, a digital facilitation site that offers a secure and transparent means for those with the ability to donate funds and help another when it matters most; Amanda Britt, Founder-CEO of Panzanzee, Chicago’s social enterprise incubator, co-working space and continuous community that provides discovery, resources, trust and traction for entrepreneurs and professionals pursuing sustainable financial and social impact; NIU alumnus Alan Hurt, Founder of Light Up Africa, a student-generated idea launched into an actual social business with a distribution strategy that encourages an entrepreneurial spirit in its customers; and Chuck Templeton, Managing Director of Impact Engine, a Chicago-based 12-week accelerator program supporting for-profit businesses working to address today’s societal or environmental issues.

Story by Michelle De Jean, Director of Marketing, NIU College of Business

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