University of Southern California

Society and Business Lab Establishes New Models for Social Entrepreneurship
Adlai Wertman Offers Students a New Way to Think About the World
November 28, 2009 • by News at Marshall

When he launched USC Marshall's Society and Business Lab in October 2008, Founding Director and Professor of Clinical Management and Organization Adlai Wertman set out to leverage the resources and talent at Marshall to address the world’s toughest social, environmental and health issues. Through its innovative programs and course offerings, Society and Business Lab connects students, scholars and practitioners across the globe, providing the resources, motivation and support they need to make a positive impact locally and abroad. In its first year, the Lab has seen remarkable success…and Wertman is just getting started.

Question: What is the value in applying business models to entrenched social problems?

Adlai Wertman: [Before coming to USC] I had a background in business and went to run a nonprofit. I really didn’t know when I took the job if a businessperson would have anything to offer. What I found is that business skills and business experience are extraordinarily helpful in addressing social and environmental issues . They allow us to develop new sustainable models, better manage existing organizations, partner with purely commercial enterprises and use the resources existing in our private sector companies to create change.

Question: What are the challenges that businesspeople face in this arena?

Adlai Wertman: We are looking at how organizations – for-profit, non-profit or hybrid – balance multiple missions. Whether a non-profit is building a revenue producing model or a private company is looking to integrate an environmental initiative, they are faced with daily trade-offs. We are teaching students how to identify measure and manage these in order to optimize both the bottom line and the social mission

Question: Now that the Society and Business Lab has completed its first year, what do you see as its proudest achievement?

Adlai Wertman: I think our biggest success is the fellows program we've put together. We really wanted to make sure to support those students at USC Marshall who have self-identified, right up front, as people who want to use their degree and education towards the benefit of the global community. When we launched the Society and Business Lab, we discovered there were a number of students who came to Marshall wanting that, but not knowing each other or where to go for support. So we created a program that would provide them with a cohort, a curriculum, mentorship, internship resources and assistance with thinking through their careers and securing full-time positions.

Question: Now that the Society and Business Lab  has completed its first year, what do you see as its proudest achievement?

Adlai Wertman: I think our biggest success is the fellows program we’ve put together. We really wanted to make sure to support those students at USC Marshall who have self-identified, right up front, as people who want to use their degree and education towards the benefit of the global community. When we launched the Society and Business Lab, we discovered there were a number of students who came to Marshall wanting that, but not knowing each other or where to go for support. So we created a program that would provide them with a cohort, a curriculum, mentorship, internship resources and assistance with thinking through their careers and securing full-time positions.

Fifteen percent of the first-year MBA class applied to be Fellows our first year. It was remarkable. The demand was so high that we ended up selecting 11 students, more than we had expected. Initially, the program is just for graduate students, but we’re hoping to replicate it with undergrads next year.

Question: How has the broader community – not just students, faculty and the administration, but also corporate and nonprofit partners – responded to the work you’re doing?

Adlai Wertman:  Everyone has been incredibly supportive. In terms of the students, I’m so impressed by how many there are out there who are interested in this; I think it says a lot about the type of students attracted to USC Marshall. And we have seen tremendous support from the school itself – everyone from Dean Jim Ellis to career resources to the professors.

We've also found really great partners beyond campus. We've been working with groups around the world to help provide opportunities to our students. Our collaboration with the Global Business Brigades, which has sent students to Panama to work with bee farmers, is one example. And a joint project with New Ventures Mexico, which enables students to do micro-farming in Mexico, is another. In addition, we've been partnering with the Taproot Foundation to train students to be better consultants to the nonprofit community. And we’ve been working closely with Art College Center of Design in Pasadena on a program called "Design Matters," which helps match design and business acumen to create new products focused on people living on under a dollar a day.

Alumni have also been very supportive with funding, as well as sponsoring some of the fellows. And there's been a phenomenal interest among alumni groups in hearing about what we're doing; we've been reaching out and speaking to them at least once a month, and in some cases they’ve requested we come back multiple times.

Question: What do you see on the horizon for Year Two and beyond?

Adlai Wertman:  We’ll have our hands full! By early next year, we expect to have a new initiative up and running: VentureBuild, a unique online support program including distance learning and mentoring for new social entrepreneurs. Anybody can participate, no matter where they are in the world. Through their involvement, participants will take their ideas from concept paper to feasibility study to business plan to operational plan. Ultimately, it will be scaleable to a point where a social entrepreneur in Mumbai can partner with somebody in Zambia who is doing a similar thing, and they can both be connected to a businessperson in L.A. or a lawyer in New York who can offer guidance and support. We're extremely grateful to The Orfalea Foundations for helping us get this off the ground.

Question: As you continue to build out the Society and Business Lab, how do you respond to cynics who say that businesses are only concerned with the bottom line?

Adlai Wertman:  In the final analysis, businesses aren't just businesses; they’re also people eager to connect with community. But they don’t always know where to look, and they’re not trained to address these kinds of critical challenges. That is our focus here: allowing business people to do what they do best and, in the process, helping them to improve the world.


About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.