Middlebury College social entrepreneur group faces its own challenges

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship, a Middlebury College department that helps budding social entrepreneurs solve the ills in society, is barely a month old, but it’s already lost its senior director.
Dan Doyle, who also helped to plan and found the center, resigned as senior director last week following financial scrutiny of his Rhode Island-based nonprofit, the Institute for International Sport. The Middlebury College Public Affairs Office stated that Doyle resigned for “personal reasons.” On Tuesday afternoon, Doyle had no comment on his reasons for leaving.
In the wake of the restructuring, the MCSE will be led by Faculty Director Jon Isham, Operations Director Elizabeth Robinson, and Associate Director of Operations and Development Heather Neuwirth.
Despite the shake-up, Isham is enthusiastic about the MCSE’s spring schedule, and said the center is running fine. Only a week after Doyle’s resignation, Isham led a trip to the Ashoka University conference in Arizona, where he and Middlebury senior Nina Cameron made a presentation on social entrepreneurship.
As a professor of Economics and Director of Environmental Studies at the college, Isham’s academic interests are coming to practical fruition at the MCSE. And, despite Doyle’s resignation, the center’s major donor — The Hassenfeld Family Foundation — is set to finance the first round of grants within the next month.
“Alan Hassenfeld (former CEO at Hasbro Inc.) has been and continues to be very generous in supporting us,” Isham said.
The initial awards, between $200 and $500, will go to high school students. A series of grants for Middlebury College students will follow, as will a round of grants up to $10,000 open to college graduates.
Though the MCSE ultimately hopes to offer as many as 300 grants annually, this first year will allow the center to vet their program.
“(Hassenfeld) is not breathing down our neck to get a certain amount of money out the door within the first year,” Isham said. “We’re not so focused on the numbers right now. We want to build a system that’s a keeper.”
The center’s current system weaves together a lecture series, project grants and a summer training program, slated to begin in June.
This balance between training and application is a hallmark of one of Middlebury College’s winter term courses, MiddCORE, which encourages students to develop and pursue entrepreneurial ideas. Courses like MiddCORE, an acronym for “Creativity Opportunity Risk and Entrepreneurship,” are the inspiration for a new minor at the college.
“There’s a broad spectrum of faculty interest in developing a certificate or minor program here,” Isham said. “Faculty in the arts, the humanities. Other colleges have them, and I’d like to see Middlebury with one.”
Isham stressed that an academic track in social entrepreneurship would be a compliment to another course of study, not a stand-alone major.
Cameron, who’s been involved with MCSE since “the very beginning,” continues to work with the center in program development.
“One of the things I’m most excited about this spring is getting more student and faculty involvement,” Cameron said. “A lot of students are excited about this, and this spring we can let even more people know what we’re doing. We’re trying to get resources to students so they can pursue ideas.”
Regardless of what the college calls this new trend in education, it’s hard to ignore. The College recently launched a department titled “Project on Creativity and Innovation,” and programs like the Solar Decathlon and the Old Stone Mill are prominent fixtures on campus.
Despite Middlebury College’s staunch “liberal arts” curriculum, President Ron Liebowitz has supported entrepreneurial programs in many forms.
“It would be difficult to exaggerate the impact that the many projects carried out by our students over the past decade have had on their education and their sense of how they can make a difference in the world,” Liebowitz said in January.
“Jon spent a lot of time talking about the connection between social entrepreneurship and the liberal arts,” Cameron said. “Really their roots are the same.”
Isham has long been interested in social entrepreneurship — an umbrella term for using entrepreneurial attitudes to address social problems — and has pioneered several academic courses on the subject at Middlebury College.
He taught a Social Entrepreneurship class in January 2011, which gave input on launching the Middlebury Center for Social Entrepreneurship. He taught a similar class this January, which he plans to make an annual offering. Next semester he’ll teach a first year seminar called “Social Entrepreneurship and Social Justice.”
“That’s also the focus of next year’s symposium,” Isham said, which MCSE will host in the third week of January 2013.
This year’s symposium, held Jan. 25-27, kicked off a lecture series continuing throughout the spring. The Center will host a different speaker at its Marble Works office every Friday from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m., open to all.
On March 9, that speaker will be Alan Harlam from Brown University’s Center for Public Service. On March 16, president of Green Mountain Development Group John Giebink will present his project, “Kitchens for Kamuli.” The lecture series will continue throughout the semester, and feed into the summer training program.
“The Friday lecture series is a great way to get people involved,” Cameron said. “And it shows that social entrepreneurship is not necessarily just going across the Atlantic. It can happen in Middlebury.”
In the face of their director’s resignation, the MCSE is proving that it can work in Middlebury. Though, even after such a fundamental restructuring, Isham anticipates more changes ahead.
“Entrepreneurship is all about trying new things, but it’s also about developing a feedback mechanism,” he said. “We know we’ll have to make some big changes and we want to stay flexible.”

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