Just three months after graduating this year from the University of Waterloo, Jonathan Rivard’s startup company had generated $130,000 in revenue.
No, the 28-year-old is not another high-tech hotshot from the university in Waterloo, Ont., known for its innovative graduates. He is among a new generation of social entrepreneurs who want to make the world a better place, and make money doing it.
Social entrepreneurship – whether as new or existing ventures, with an environmental or social-justice focus – is a hot topic on campus. Universities are adding courses and programs, establishing incubators to nurture ideas and offering mentoring and other support for those who see a career in this expanding sector.
“It is a generational zeitgeist, no doubt about it,” says Anita Nowak, integrating director of the Social Economy Initiative, at McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal.
“This generation has inherited a whole series of global problems – climate change, income inequality – and they really get it. There is a critical mass of students who are enlightened and want to do something different,” she says. “For them it is not a matter of graduating and getting a job.”
New initiatives are popping up on campuses across the country.
This fall, the University of British Columbia in Burnaby, B.C., offered a new course, informally known as Entrepreneurship 101 and developed in collaboration with its Sauder School of Business, for students in second year or above from any faculty.
Last spring, Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business, also in Vancouver, set up an interdisciplinary social innovation lab and venture incubator, for students across campus to develop and market “radical ideas, useful to society.”
Last year, Ms. Nowak’s Social Economy Initiative introduced an elective in social entrepreneurship and social innovation and has plans to add more undergraduate courses.
The University of Waterloo’s Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre, part of the engineering faculty, offers a for-credit co-op option for students starting their own business in any field.
Mr. Rivard graduated from the centre this year with a master of business, entrepreneurship and technology, founding CANGO Consulting Inc. to provide management consulting services to philanthropic funders.
The typical trajectory after business school of joining a large firm at the entry level held no interest.
“It didn’t seem appealing to me and I don’t think it is appealing to a lot of people,” he says. Instead, with one full-time colleague and several more on contract, Mr. Rivard’s Waterloo-based company works with donors such as the United Way of Kitchener-Waterloo to improve the performance of non-profit agencies.
“It is incredibly exciting,” he says of his startup. “I’m 28, still in my prime and fresh out of my master’s program,” he says. “This is my career and what I get to do for the rest of my life. It is exactly what I want to be doing and I couldn’t be happier.” His outlook resonates with David Dunne, a senior fellow at SFU’s Beedie and chairman of RADIUS, the social innovation lab and new venture incubator set up earlier this year.
“What I see with younger colleagues and with students is that there is a real sense they are not prepared to buy in to the business agenda as they see it out there,” he says.
“What they want to do is reshape business on their own terms.”
Prof. Dunne says RADIUS (short for radical ideas, useful to society) was established to solve what he calls “wicked problems” – critical, chronic problems in society and business with no clear start or end point.
This fall, 60 students from business, environmental studies and design are to work in teams at the lab using new analytical methodologies, such as problem-framing and ethnography, to solve real-world social problems.
As at Simon Fraser, UBC’s new Entrepreneurship 101 course is open to students across campus.
In one measure of interest, students from 14 faculties signed up for the semester-long course that had to be opened up for three sections of class, not one.
By design, the course has no prerequisites.
“The premise is that you don’t know what you don’t know,” says Sauder marketing and social media professor Paul Cubbon, who helped to develop the course. “If you get an opportunity to be exposed to things, often it can shape your decision for other courses and studies.”