What led you to focus your research on social entrepreneurship?
My prior exposure to work in the free media and the development of a transparent business climate [through the lens of sustainability] all led toward my interest in social entrepreneurship.
In Ukraine, I was the was executive director of the Academy of the Ukraine Press, a nonprofit that helps support free media.
Prior to 2004, [Ukraine] had a regime that was trying to constrain the free media. Our mission was to help foster free media through education. We did training [sessions] and also ran a content analysis of prime time TV news where we provided empirical evidence of bias and censorship in the official media. That experience was my initial step towards looking at how we correct things that are not just.
The University of Rhode Island, [where I studied for my PhD,] is located on the coast and we studied a lot of issues that related to coastal management and sustainability.
For my doctoral research I did a project in Tajikistan where I studied small-scale renewables. I also studied the development of bioenergy in Europe and alternative markets in the shellfish industry.
After my graduation, I joined a European Commission-funded project called SEFORÏS, which stands for “Social Entrepreneurship as a Force for more Inclusive and Innovative Societies.” The project brings different schools together and carries out a very comprehensive data collection effort, both qualitative and quantitative, in terms of what’s going on in the social entrepreneurship space in Europe, in China, and Russia–across continents. I was affiliated with the team from SITE, Stockholm School of Economics.
What is the focus of your current research?
Tom Moliterno, [Vice Dean & Associate Dean of Research and Engagement at Isenberg,] and I are interested in [determining]: What are the individual drivers of a social entrepreneur? What is the profile of a social entrepreneur? Which students go into social entrepreneurship and which do not?
A lot of [students] express their pro-social beliefs, so we are trying to find the causal evidence for what drives them [to choose] whether to take salaried employment or to become an entrepreneur. There is also another choice–to become a social entrepreneur. What influences [the choice]? We’re still in the beginning stages but that’s our grand research question.
Tell us about Social Entrepreneurship Day.
The conference, [which is held at Isenberg,] brings together researchers, social entrepreneurs, and students interested in social entrepreneurship.
UMass Amherst is uniquely positioned for social entrepreneurship because there’s a historic interest in social justice at UMass and a very strong co-operative movement in the area.
This conference provides a forum for discussion and also provides us with a kind of feedback loop. We tell practitioners about the research in the field, the practitioners tell us about recent developments [in their industry], and students are exposed to both sides of the story.
What is the Hult Prize?
The Social Entrepreneurship Club is a group of brilliant students [from colleges and departments across UMass] who are socially minded and very engaged.
The club brought the Hult Prize, [“a start-up accelerator for social entrepreneurship which brings together students from around the globe”,] to UMass and now Isenberg has its own Hult Prize competition and the winners go directly to the regionals.
How do you define social entrepreneurship?
There are quite a few definitions of social entrepreneurship. The definition that I usually subscribe to is entrepreneurial activity used to solve societal problems by involving organizations driven by social mission.
What individuals or companies in the social entrepreneurship space do you admire?
Kevin Moforte, the founder Esperanza Soaps, is [actually] a trained aviation engineer. His organization trains women [in Las Malvinas II, a slum in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic,] to make soap, which is then sold in other parts of the Dominican Republic as well as in the US. I got to know the organization through my colleagues at the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at Isenberg.
The Wellspring Cooperative [in Springfield, Massachusetts,] supports the economic development of urban Springfield. Springfield is in dire need of economic development and employment and the cooperative’s mission is [“to create a network of worker owned companies in inner city Springfield will provide on-the-job training and employment opportunities for low income and unemployed residents of the city”].
These two organizations provide a good example of how diverse the field of social entrepreneurship is.
What keeps you motivated?
We’ve been studying organizations for a while, we’ve been studying public organizations for a while, and we’ve been studying business organizations for a while. But there is so much that comes at the intersection of where businesses engage in pro-social pursuits or nonprofits work as businesses and still deliver their social mission. So on one hand, [identifying what motivates social entrepreneurs] is an interesting research question. And on the other hand, it’s also the people I’ve [met] that makes me optimistic that I’ve made the right choice [in terms of my research].
There are so many interesting aspects that drive me and make [Isenberg] committed to this area. It’s an inspiring field.
Interview has been edited and condensed.