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NNU business class focuses on social good

Northwest Nazarene University's School of Business will teach students about social ventures

Following a path made at other universities, Northwest Nazarene University School of Business Dean Steve Mountjoy is teaching a class on social ventures, where students create business plans with a financial and social bottom line.

“Business really should be meeting the needs of the communities it works in to make those communities thrive,” said Mountjoy, an advocate of business  and business practices but not always of companies that depend on advertising to sell non-essential services.  “Too often, those things are distanced from the real needs of the communities that they serve. Especially in American, where we are bombarded by marketing, we are told what we want rather than having businesses serve our needs.”

The 50 students in the social ventures classes, half of whom are seniors completing a final seminar, will work in small teams making their social venture plan. In late March, they’ll present their plans and compete for a cash prize and the chance to travel to Seattle Pacific University in April for a larger contest featuring teams from across the northwest.

“The framework for this is: How do you use business to make a difference? They come with an idea and translate that into a business plan,” said SPU professor Don Summers, who organizes that school’s contest.  “It’s a way of transforming concrete, specific ideas into big ideas, and in the course of doing that, help students see how they can make an impact in the world.” Summers said the contest and his course on the program are a good match for idealistic students looking to make a difference in the world, perhaps instead of  making a lot of money.

Potential social ventures include secular or church non-profits, engineering projects, and businesses that address a social need. Though the NNU class is new, Mountjoy sent a team to the SPU competition last year with an idea for a database system that matched volunteers with organizations needing help, based on the volunteers’ expertise and abilities. The winner of last year’s SPU contest was Pterofin, a prototype small wind or water turbine that can generate energy at low speeds. Previous winners include a landscaping company that would train ex-offenders and a soap company that would create manufacturing jobs and a larger supply of soap in the Philippines.

NNU School of Business Dean Steve Mountjoy

Successful social entrepreneurial programs are intended to function without donations, which Mountjoy said can be a benefit, since that charitable money could go to help others in need. “Doing social ventures makes a lot of sense,” he said. “You’re identifying markets that have never been met or languishing in not-for-profits.”

Mountjoy said he thinks the class will allow students to turn an academic exercise into a real business. Summers said some of the recent winners have turned their ideas into reality, but that’s not the goal.

“This is primarily an educational endeavor. First and foremost, we want the students to come away having learned about business,” Summers said. He said that, just as with all businesses, some of the social ventures have succeeded where others have failed. “We’re overjoyed when some of those students take those projects and turn them into the real deal, but that’s not our primary goal.”

Mountjoy said he didn’t know of any other schools in Idaho with social venture classes. Brigham Young University has a social venture contest with $20,000 in awards that’s open to students at all its campuses, including BYU-Idaho in Rexburg. Similar contests are held at universities across the country, with the biggest being the Global Social Venture Competition, held in Berkeley, Calif., with $50,000 in prizes.

Mountjoy said the new class is designed to appeal to non-business majors, and that he has students majoring in English, political science and social work taking the class. He also said the class fits NNU’s religious mission.

“Christians should be doing this kind of thing,” he said. NNU’s School of Business, which has 300 students split among undergraduate, adult degree and MBA programs, strives to include religious and ethical education. “What we want to develop is ethical leaders in business.”

About Brad Iverson-Long

Brad Iverson-Long is a reporter for the Idaho Business Review, covering banks, financial services, technology and new business.