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The Irish Impact Social Entrepreneurship Conference took place September 17-19 on the University of Notre Dame campus.

The University of Notre Dame has a long history of service, which is incorporated into its mission statement – “to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.”   As a result, social entrepreneurship has a natural home at Notre Dame. The very attributes of social entrepreneurship discussed in so many classrooms internationally and across the country – passion, business-like discipline, ingenuity and innovation, determination and perseverance, relentless pursuit, spread of ideas, systemic change, and marshaling of resources/bootstrapping – resonate with Notre Dame students, faculty and staff, alumni, and the wider Notre Dame community.

Notre Dame’s Gigot Center for Entrepreneurship has taught nearly 1,000 students in social entrepreneurship classrooms since Fall 2006 and engaged countless others through internships, guest lectures, and the Irish Impact Conference.  Social entrepreneurs exist in every industry/profession, and the students represent many colleges and disciplines.  In addition to (or instead of) creating their own social enterprises, the hope is that students see their own potential as social “intra”preneurs, engaging in social impact no matter their profession, industry or company size, as well as engaging in a supportive ecosystem.

The University’s social entrepreneurial constellation continues to expand, whether through the Center for Social Concerns, the Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity, the Initiative for Global Development (IGD), or the Master’s programs in global health and STEM that are engaging in social entrepreneurship. Finally, the Fellow Irish Social Hub (FISH) is a social incubator that works with students, faculty, staff, alums and the South Bend community to help them commercialize their social/environmental ideas and research. 

Some of the interesting elements of last week’s agenda are described here:

  • Growth Strategy Revolution – Using Customer Insights to Grow Your Social Enterprise, Vennli – Markets move quickly, so annual planning isn’t going to cut it. You cannot tackle all of your offerings, customer segments, and competitors with a single strategy. Growth strategy must be an ongoing, collaborative process that’s focused on providing value for specific customer segments. This session helped participants learn how to sort through the noise and listen to the customer voice so one can clearly see avenues for growth.  A key aspect of this model is the visualization of data in order to quickly grasp the competitive landscape and customer needs, prompting strategic questions and speeding up your growth cycle.  Take the guesswork out of strategic planning – evolve your thinking.
  • Smart Innovation: From Social to Business, Greg Van Kirk, Smart Vision Labs – Although Greg continues to lead Community Enterprise Solutions (CE Solutions) and Social Entrepreneur Corps, he has recently taken up the role of Director of Social Venture at start-up Smart Vision Labs (SVL) (www.smartvisionlabs.com) and is leading efforts in the developing world. SVL has developed a game-changing device that, when attached to the camera of a smart phone, can give a vision prescription in a matter of seconds. Greg will be talking about this new venture and how, contrary to conventional thinking, the “social” strategy of the company is actually critical to informing the “business” strategy of the company. SVL is an example of the new paradigm of thinking that stands as a clear case where social impact and business success are not mutually exclusive goals. SVL is breaking away from the “Tyranny of the Or” and sees the “Beauty of the And” not as a romantic notion but rather the key to achieving scale.
  • Design Matters: Using Design Thinking for Social Innovation, Ann-Marie Conrado, Assistant Professor, Industrial Design and Founder, Hope Initiative – Today’s humanitarian concerns and issues are increasingly complex and multi-faceted, requiring new methodologies and perspectives to navigate.  Design thinking offers an innovative approach centered on a deep, empathetic understanding of the end user, their context of use and unmet needs in order to reframe the problem in a manner that encourages bold new ideas and breakthrough solutions. This session focused on sharing various interventions developed by the industrial design program at Notre Dame in areas of healthcare, education, refugee and disaster sheltering and economic empowerment in the country of Nepal.  Each offers a case study and roadmap for deploying this methodology and the potential to offer alternatives to society’s most intractable problems.

Irish Impact // University of Notre Dame

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