By Ryan Dougherty
September 9th, 2015
Swarthmore College website
Is social entrepreneurship an oxymoron?
It has been for many philanthropists, who worry that building a business model will compromise their mission, and for businesspersons who deem the social part too “touchy feely.” But that’s changing, says Denise Crossan.
“Increasingly, I have students and community members coming to me saying, ‘I have this great business idea, and it’s also going to address a societal problem,’” she says. “There’s definitely space for both.”
Crossan will navigate students through that space as the Eugene M. Lang Visiting Professor for Issues in Social Change this year, responding to a budding interest in doing well and doing good.
“There’s real appetite from students here who want to be engaged in giving back to society through sustainable enterprise,” she says. “It’s about building an organization that makes money that can be reinvested into social purpose or impact.”
Crossan is offering two courses this year through the Peace and Conflict Studies program. This fall, she is teaching a class on what social entrepreneurship is and how to engage in it. In the spring, she will teach a course she calls “finding your inner social entrepreneur,” targeting students who have identified a social issue to which they would like to apply a business model.
“It’s about giving them the space to convert their idea into a viable, sustainable enterprise that creates measurable social change,” says Crossan, emphasizing the interdisciplinary nature of the subject.
“If anyone wants to have a conversation about their research or interests or work that might potentially spin out into social entrepreneurship and wants to come talk with me, I’d be delighted,” she says.
Crossan comes to Swarthmore from Trinity College Dublin’s School of Business, where she was appointed assistant professor of social entrepreneurship — the first post of its kind in Ireland — in 2009. However, it was her background as community business advisor for the European Union Program for Peace & Reconciliation that helped pave her way to Swarthmore.
John Van Til ’61, professor emeritus of urban studies and community planning at Rutgers University, Camden, was one of Crossan’s external examiners for her Ph.D. Noting her deep knowledge of community organizations in Northern Ireland, he mentioned that Swarthmore was looking for someone to set up a study abroad program there. Crossan’s discussions with Steven Piker, former professor of anthropology and advisor to the Off-Campus Study Office, and Rosa Bernard, assistant director of the Off-Campus Study Office, yielded a successful Northern Ireland Program based in Derry and Belfast that has sent 12 Swarthmore students to study peace and reconciliation with Trinity College students since 2005.
Visiting Swarthmore’s campus each year, Crossan developed admiration for the people and purpose of the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility.
“I thought, ‘We need the Lang Center in Ireland,’” she says. “They inspired me to work toward setting up the Trinity Centre for Social Engagement [pdf], which will foster social innovation and entrepreneurial action and help us to understand meaningful engagement in society.”
Crossan also sits on a panel of experts in social entrepreneurship for the European Commission, whose responsibilities include advising the commission on the development of the Social Business Initiative across the European Union. She is creating a digital map of social enterprise and eager to engage Swarthmore students in mapping social entrepreneurship in Philadelphia and beyond.
Before she could outline her academic plans for the coming year, though, Crossan had to overcome what she called the “information overload” of re-locating to the U.S.: “new house, new job, new car, new I.D.”
But since she was born and spent the first 10 years of her life in Ohio, it’s not all new.
“Things that I remember from when I was little are coming back to me,” she says. “It’s the small things, like the sounds of people cutting their grass at night or the bugs in the trees.”
And she already feels at home in the Swarthmore community.
“They’re just the most engaged and incredibly deep-thinking group of individuals you could possibly meet,” she says. “Even better, it comes without judgment. It’s an incredible institution with fabulous thinkers, which is also very humble, open to new thoughts and people and contributions. That, I absolutely love.”