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Boston tops the 2017 ranking, which measures social enterprise activity in 21 U.S. metropolitan regions. Students who worked on the project also used it as a launchpad for an academic study presented at a conference in Rome. They were the only undergraduates who presented research at the international event, which featured paper presentations from doctoral candidates and academics.

Four undergraduate students from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business produced research for a new Social Enterprise Ecosystems Report, released Aug. 16 in collaboration with Deloitte, Capital One and Halcyon Incubator in Washington, D.C.

“Normally when undergraduate students attend an event like that, they sit in the back and take notes,” said Smith School professor David Kirsch, who advised the undergraduate consultants. “These students moved to the podium at the front of the room.”

When Halcyon approached the Smith School’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship about collaborating on the second edition of its Social Enterprise Ecosystems Report, Sara Herald, Associate Director for Social Entrepreneurship at the Dingman Center, jumped at the opportunity. “It provided a unique opportunity to connect our students with some of the nation’s most promising social entrepreneurs,” she said. 

Herald worked with Kirsch to recruit students in his Social Innovation Fellows program. Participants in the program do an applied project each spring as part of their yearlong fellowship, and Kirsch thought the Halcyon project would make an interesting challenge. Volunteers included Fasika Delessa, Sarina Haryanto, Aishwariya Chandrasekar and Evan Haas.

“Most of what the students normally do is a classic marketing problem, just applying known tools to solve it,” Kirsch said. “What happened here was the problem was in this unknown space called social enterprise ecosystems. We didn’t know what that meant. The students couldn’t just follow the well-trodden path to that set of tools and methods, and figure out what to do. They had to build it.”

The team started with two basic questions: Do social enterprise ecosystems differ from traditional enterprise ecosystems like the one in Silicon Valley? If so, to what extent?

While the students delved into the data, Kirsch came across a new academic conference looking for social enterprise research submissions. The timing seemed ideal. “It was the perfect storm,” Kirsch said.

The four students embraced the challenge, leading them to the first IESE-LUISS Conference on Responsibility, Sustainability and Social Entrepreneurship on April 18-19, 2017, in Rome.

Chandrasekar says her team relied on research from some of the same people in the audience, which was intimidating. But Kirsch kept pushing the team forward. “The whole experience solidified my interest in graduate school and a career in academia,” she said.

Halcyon program director Ross Ryan said Halcyon has been thrilled with the results and hopes the Dingman Center partnership continues. “It has just been incredible to have partners who understand the depth of the existing literature and how to apply statistical methods,” he said. “The students in particular made sure this groundbreaking analysis will catalyze future research.”

Getting the students to Rome was a joint undertaking of financial support and logistics provided by the Smith School’s Undergraduate Programs Office, the Office of Global Initiatives, the Dingman Center and the Center for Social Value Creation.

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